UA Professor Earns White House Appointment

UA water specialist Katharine L. Jacobs is taking her expertise to Washington, D.C. where she has a new appointment to work on national climate change issues.
Jan. 4, 2010
Katharine L. Jacobs has been assigned a White House appointment through an arrangement with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Katharine L. Jacobs has been assigned a White House appointment through an arrangement with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

For decades, Katharine L. Jacobs has been involved in local and national discussions on issues related to water rights and conservation, at times also serving as a preeminent voice on ways to translate science into sustainable policy.

Those years of work and expertise have resulted in Jacobs earning an appointment with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from which serving with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP.

Jacobs, a University of Arizona professor and specialist in the department of soil, water and environmental science, has been named the OSTP's assistant director for climate adaptation and assessment within the office's Energy and Environment Division. She begins her post Jan. 4. 

"This is a dramatic change for me," Jacobs said. "But I am a hard worker and happy that my experience crossing the boundary between science and policy is valued by the Obama administration."

Jacobs, who is not taking a leave of absence from the UA, is being assigned to NOAA through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program, which allows state and university employees to be temporarily placed in positions within federal government offices. 

The announcement of her position comes at a crucial time. 

The 20-year anniversary of the enactment of the U.S. Global Change Research Act is approaching. The act mandates research on the climate to promote an enhanced understanding of global climate change and periodic assessments of the impacts of climate change.

Also, the Obama administration has identified addressing global climate change and "green jobs" related to development and deployment of alternative and renewable energy sources among its high priorities.

"Climate issues are very significant for this administration and there is a broad objective of limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases as well as supporting state and local efforts to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate," said Jacobs, who also is an extension specialist in water management.

During last month's United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen, President Obama said "climate change poses a grave and growing danger to our people." He also noted that dismissing concerns related to the adverse effects of climate change threaten "our security, our economies and our planet."

Obama also emphasized that the United States will continue enhancing its reliance on renewable energies.

While in Washington, D.C., Jacobs will work with the U.S. Global Change Research Program agencies and others to help coordinate climate assessment and adaptation activities.

She reports directly to Sherburne "Shere" Abbott, associate director of environment for OSTP.

Abbott reports directly to John P. Holdren, who serves as assistant to the president for science and technology and also directs OSTP in the Executive Office of the President, directly advising President Obama. The office coordinates the work of federal science agencies and science priorities for the federal government related to energy, climate, science, technology and other issues.

Jacobs, who joined the UA faculty in 2003, holds joint appointments with the hydrology and water resources department and School of Geography and Development.

For four years, she served as deputy director of Sustainability of semi-Arid Region Hydrology and Riparian Areas, or SAHRA, a National Science Foundation science and technology center located at the UA.

Prior to arriving at UA, Jacobs directed the Arizona Department of Water Resources' Tucson office from 1988 to 2001. In her tenure with the department, she helped establish groundwater rights, conservation programs for agriculture, industry and municipal water users and rules that provide for assured water supplies for new residential development, among other projects.

Jacobs also has worked on drought and climate change issues since 1998, serving on the National Assessment Synthesis Team during the Clinton administration and helped write the water sector chapter for the first report under the U.S. Global Change Research Act.

She has served on numerous other climate and assessment-related National Academy panels, including panels reviewing the Climate Change Science Program under the Bush administration. 

At the UA, Jacobs has focused on water policy and climate change adaptation while working to bridge the gap between academic research and real-world decision-making.

She helped build Arizona Water Institute, serving as its director from 2006 through 2009. The institute was a collaborative effort of Arizona's three universities to help solve water sustainability and water quality issues in the state.

The institute closed last summer as a result of budgetary constraints. In May, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar honored one of its collaborative research projects. Jacobs accepted the award in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the UA research team.

"Solving problems in partnership with stakeholders is an approach that is appreciated by this administration," said Jacobs, who also is affiliated with the UA Institute of the Environment. She noted that the UA has a strong level of expertise in the area of climate change and a tradition of inter-disciplinary work. "Taking this perspective to Washington is an important next step." 

Elsewhere at the UA, Jacobs has worked closely with the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, or CLIMAS, project at the UA and the University's Water Resources Research Center.

And in December 2008, the National Academies named Jacobs chair of its America's Climate Choices Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. Jacobs will have to step down from the position as she takes on the White House appointment.

Jacobs said: "I am really pleased with this vote of confidence in my abilities as a science translator and a collaborative problem solver."