2019 GSA Public Service Award

Presented to Craig M. Schiffries

Craig M. Schiffries

Craig M. Schiffries
Carnegie Institution for Science


Citation by Robert Hazen, Carnegie Science

Craig Schiffries is an eminently worthy recipient of the GSA Public Service Award. He fulfils not just one or two of the criteria for this award, but in fact all of them with the greatest distinction. Craig’s professional career began with an impeccable academic pedigree, receiving his PhD from Harvard University in 1988, after his undergraduate degree at Yale, with a double major in geology and geophysics, and in economics and political science. He earned a master's degree in geology and geophysics at Yale, and then an honors B.A. in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University in 1982.

Craig’s first forays into public service  occurred in the area of advancing the public’s understanding of the Earth sciences, particularly serving the highest level of policy decision-makers. Throughout his career, Craig has excelled in championing geoscience and steering policy on such critical topics as climate change, land use management, natural resource discovery and stewardship, and diversity in the geosciences. Craig was Director of Science Policy at the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington DC from 2001 to 2007, where he was a regular figure in the United States Congress, providing evidence and advice to policy makers on a broad range of critical geoscience-related societal issues. From 2007 to 2011, Craig was the first Director of Geoscience Policy at the Geological Society of America, where he helped to advance GSA’s mission of “promoting the geosciences in the service of humankind and stewardship of the Earth”—a motto that could easily be a tagline for Craig Schiffries’s own professional mission statement.

Most recently, Craig Schiffries has served as Director of the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), a major international scientific organization with more than 1200 collaborators in 55 countries. The DCO, arguably the largest multi-disciplinary research program in the history of the Earth sciences, has for the past decade been bringing clarity and focus to questions about the physical, chemical, and biological roles of carbon in Earth, from crust to core at scales from nano to global. The DCO focuses on the 90% of Earth’s carbon that is relatively poorly understood and hidden from view—the deep-Earth plumbing systems that feed volcanoes, exotic carbon-bearing phases in Earth’s lower mantle and core, the secrets of multi-billion-year old diamonds and their storehouses of mantle inclusions, and the astonishing realm of deep microbial life that exists almost everywhere, kilometers beneath our feet. To tackle these and many other mysteries, the DCO under Craig's visionary leadership has fostered an unprecedented degree of interaction among those trained in physics, chemistry, biology, and geoscience. It has reshaped our understanding of carbon in Earth by sponsoring pioneering laboratory, field, and experimental research across the globe.

Craig’s leadership of the DCO has not only brought forth huge scientific discoveries, but has also involved communication of these discoveries to a broad, fascinated public, in a range of different ways. DCO press releases have reached billions of readers; its short videos are a staple of YouTube; and DCO webinars, public lectures, a website, educational materials, and more reach an ever-expanding audience. As the program draws to a close in 2019, Craig’s attention has turned to the future. He has been instrumental in the recent development of large, multinational proposals to continue the work that DCO began—work that is accelerating in many countries around the world through hundreds of millions of dollars in new grants. Craig, in his leadership and advocacy roles, has brought international groups together, fostered collaborations, and has brought to prominence, in particular, scientists from less developed countries.

Even while traveling around the globe on DCO missions, Craig has excelled in his tireless contributions to the Earth Science community. Craig serves on the External Advisory Board to a number of large international projects, including the recently funded Science 4 Clean Energy project of the European Research and Innovation Office. He is a member of a range of advisory committees and selection panels, for example the Cambridge Gates Scholarship selection panel, the British Ambassador’s Advisory Committee on Marshall Scholarships, the Truman Scholarship National Finalist Selection Committee, Intel Science Talent Search Evaluation Committee, and the Marshall Sherfield Postdoctoral Fellowship Selection Committee. Astonishingly, these are all current positions!

One of the greatest achievements of the DCO is the substantial and meaningful advancement of the careers of hundreds of early-career scientists. Under Craig Schiffries’ leadership, the DCO has given direct support to scores of early-career scientists to run their own field programs, organize their own conferences, and serve in top leadership positions on every leadership committee and community of the DCO. Early-career scientists have given high-profile plenary lectures at every DCO meeting, at international conferences, and at prestigious public lecture series. Craig also initiated the DCO’s prestigious “Emerging Leader Awards” for early-career scientists and has successfully sponsored many nominations for prizes and recognition of early-career DCO scientists. The DCO culture of support and mentoring has, throughout its decade of achievement, been a high priority for Craig as DCO Director.

Last, but not least, Craig Schiffries is a delight to work with. Gregarious, thoughtful, smiling, and engaging, he has an amusing story for every occasion, often a self-effacing anecdote based around how some fundamental scientific discovery was made, which often involves accidents, mistakes, and unforeseen events. His memory and attention to detail for people and events is unprecedented, and Craig uses this skill to form lasting and strong professional relationships. Consequently, Craig Schiffries has been instrumental in knitting together an international community of scholars, young and old, who will continue to interact long after the DCO’s first decade is completed.

For these exceptional, selfless, and transformative contributions to the Earth Science community, Craig Schiffries is richly deserving of the 2019 Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America.


Response by Craig M. Schiffries

I am deeply honored and humbled to receive the 2019 GSA Public Service Award, which reflects the global impact of the Deep Carbon Observatory’s (DCO) collaborative network of 1200 scientists in 55 countries. DCO’s unique approach has led to novel results of broad interest beyond traditional scientific disciplines, including more than 110 papers by DCO scientists in Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Deep carbon science has also captured the imagination of broader audiences, as demonstrated by news articles that have reached more than two billion people worldwide. No less important than its scientific advances, DCO has built an enduring legacy in its diverse, dynamic, and international community of interdisciplinary scientists. DCO is cultivating the next generation of researchers who will carry on this tradition of exploration and discovery.

I am profoundly grateful to the Geological Society of America for this award and for facilitating my career at the interface between geology and public policy. As a graduate student, I received a GSA travel grant to support my geological fieldwork in the Bushveld Complex, South Africa. After completing postdoctoral research, I served as the GSA Congressional Science Fellow on the staff of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology and the Law. The GSA Congressional Science Fellowship gave me an opportunity to draft legislation, speeches, and reports for United States Senators and help advanced bills through the entire legislative process from introduction to committee approval to Senate passage to signature by the President of the United States.

Building on my experience on Capitol Hill, I served as the first director of government affairs for the American Geosciences Institute, where I testified before Congress on behalf of a federation of 26 scientific and professional societies that represented more than 100,000 members. AGI’s Government Affairs Program provided a welcome voice for the geoscience community on a wide range of science policy issues.

In my capacity as director of the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, I worked with committees that wrote reports on such topics as Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands, Satellite Gravity and the Geosphere, and Research Required to Support Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Monitoring.  These and other reports help improve government decision making and public policy, increase public understanding, and promote the acquisition and dissemination of geoscience knowledge.

It was a special privilege for me to serve as GSA’s first director for geoscience policy. I worked with then-GSA executive director Jack Hess to establish GSA’s office in Washington, DC and advance GSA’s mission regarding service to society. I was honored to testify before Congress on behalf of the Geological Society of America and to facilitate the participation of numerous other GSA members in public policy decisions.

Geoscience information is essential for addressing many of society’s greatest challenges, including energy and mineral resources, natural hazards, climate change, and water availability and quality. The geoscience community has a professional obligation to share its expertise with decision makers. I am delighted that GSA is in the vanguard as it continues to work with other scientific societies and coalitions to support increased investments in geoscience research, strengthen geoscience institutions and communities, and improve the scientific basis of public policy decisions.

I am extremely grateful to Robert Hazen and other colleagues who nominated me for this award, which reflects a team effort by hundreds of collaborators. I want to pay special tribute to former GSA president Brian Skinner, who passed away this year. Brian was my undergraduate thesis advisor at Yale, a member of my PhD thesis committee at Harvard, and a lifelong mentor, colleague and friend. Few people are as richly deserving of this award as Robert Hazen and Brian Skinner. I wish Brian was with us today.