PerspectiveRetrospective

Frank Press (1924–2020)

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Science  06 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6482, pp. 1077
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb2626

Frank Press, geophysicist and two-term president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), died on 29 January. He was 95. This soft-spoken son of Jewish immigrants advised four U.S. presidents, built institutions to prominence, and provided the scientific guarantee for the nuclear test ban treaty. No scientist had more impact on the American science-policy interface in the late 20th century.


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PHOTO: COURTESY MIT MUSEUM

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Press earned his bachelor's degree in physics from City College of New York before completing a Ph.D. in geophysics at Columbia University with the famed geophysicist and oceanographer Maurice “Doc” Ewing in 1949. Press was appointed to the faculty of Columbia, where he developed the Press-Ewing seismometer and cofounded the Lamont Geological Observatory (now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory). In 1955, he was recruited to the Seismological Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where just 2 years later he succeeded its founder, Beno Gutenberg, to become the director, leapfrogging more senior seismologists. As a member of the international “Conference of Experts” in Geneva in 1958, Press convinced world leaders that a worldwide seismic network could be designed to monitor compliance with a nuclear test ban treaty. This assurance that such a treaty could be verified was instrumental to its ultimate success. At Caltech, Press championed the use of computers to digitize the increasing volume of seismic data. Along with colleagues, he used this processing power to make the first observational detection of the excitation of Earth's normal modes from the 1960 Chilean earthquake.

In 1965, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recruited Press to head the Department of Geology and Geophysics. Press transformed the classical department into a modern-day Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (now known as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences), addressing the cutting-edge issues of the day. For Neil Armstrong's first walk on the Moon, Press designed a seismic experiment to passively detect moonquakes and asteroid impacts. The experiment returned the first information on the internal structure of the Moon and proved this concept for probing planetary interiors. The Joint Program between MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution that educates graduate students in ocean sciences and engineering is one of Press's more successful innovations during his MIT years.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Press as his science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1977. By that time, Press was no stranger to Washington, D.C., policy circles. He had already served 3 years on the President's Science Advisory Committee under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and 6 years on the National Science Board under Richard Nixon. While in the White House, he championed federal investment in research and international cooperation. He created the first opportunities for Chinese students to study at U.S. universities, a cohort that grew to 100,000 young scholars in just 5 years.

In 1981, Press was elected president of the NAS. Despite what the research community viewed as the Reagan administration's assaults on science budgets, science-based policy, and the environment, Press managed to avoid politicizing the NAS and deftly piloted its advisory mission to new prominence by supplying unassailable advice based on science. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in the late 1980s that requiring creationism to be taught in public schools along with evolution was unconstitutional under the First Amendment, influenced by a NAS publication (Science and Creationism, 1984) that pointed out that creationism is not supported by scientific evidence. In an environmental win, a report on acid rain (Acid Deposition: Atmospheric Processes in Eastern North America, 1983) led the Reagan administration to cap the emissions of nitrogen dioxide. A year later, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to address sulfur dioxide emissions. Press was also a defender of the social sciences, stating that their research is evidence based and that they belong in the NAS.

Two high-profile consensus reports changed the course of the nation during Press's NAS tenure. Confronting AIDS (1986) spurred a reluctant administration to action to prevent HIV infections from becoming a nationwide public health epidemic. Within a few years, several African nations that did not act saw life expectancy fall. In 1988, Mapping and Sequencing the Human Genome launched a project that spawned multibillion-dollar industries and has contributed immeasurably to human health. In 2000, recognizing that Press had positioned the NAS as the most trusted adviser in science for policy, the NAS honored him as its first-ever “president emeritus.”

After his retirement from NAS in 1993, Press founded the Washington Advisory Group (WAG). WAG worked with, among others, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Press and colleagues helped Saudi Arabia develop a first-class research university.

When Frank Press talked, people listened. I was one of those people. I was the final hire into “the department that Frank built” at MIT before he left to head the NAS. Later, he helped recruit me to lead the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for an idyllic dozen years, where he served on the board. His office was my first stop for advice after being asked to lead the U.S. Geological Survey in 2009. I was wavering on accepting the Washington, D.C., position because it would require a long separation from my family in California. When Press learned that I would also be science adviser to the secretary of the interior, he was adamant that I accept. Press saw an important opportunity to ensure that science would have a direct route into Cabinet-level decisions. He made me realize that choices were no longer about me but rather what was best for the nation.

I also followed Press's advice to benefit from the fresh perspectives of new colleagues and a new mission by changing positions frequently. I could not be more fortunate to have had such an amazing mentor choose me. His passing is a loss not just for the nation but for the many he inspired.

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