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November 28, 2023

Explore the work and career of Steve Jackson, recently retired Senior Science Advisor to the National CASC on Biodiversity and Climate Change.

This profile was written by Tyler Plum, National CASC Science Communication Specialist.


Science in Perspective

Retirement often inspires a person to look back and learn from their past, but for Steve Jackson, that’s been part of the job from day one. As a student of science history, Jackson believes that to understand anything in science and in contemporary society, you must understand some of its history. “Everything that's going on in the world today has historical roots and understanding that enriches and often helps in addressing those kinds of issues,” he explains.

Jackson has applied this philosophy throughout his career as a paleoecologist, university professor, and federal scientist. From Jackson’s storied past, we get a glimpse of how history has shaped not only his career, but the future of climate change science.


Steve Jackson, Director of the Southwest and South Central Climate Science Centers
Steve Jackson, former Director of the Southwest and South Central CASCs, and recently retired Senior Science Advisor to the National CASC on Biodiversity and Climate Change.

Science, Sputnik, and Serendipity

Jackson came of age as part of the post-Sputnik generation and during the burgeoning environmental movement of the 60s.

Spending his youth in the forests and streams surrounding his Midwestern hometown, an interest in nature was, well, natural. “The first Earth Day came a few weeks before my 15th birthday (and) I was already really aware of environmental issues.” Wanting to explore these environmental issues further, he went to college to study biology, thinking he would become a wildlife manager.

Jackson’s interests led him to narrow his focus and study botany in undergrad, with the intention to return to wildlife management in a graduate program.

Growing up collecting rocks and fossils in a coal mining town, his fascination with minerals and history had him pair his botany major with a minor in geology. “I took a course in Pleistocene geology just because I thought, ‘wow, that sounds really cool.’ It's mammoths and ground sloths and glaciers and the ice ages. There's a lot of romantic stuff wrapped up in that.”

Jackson didn’t know it at the time, but the romance of this course would open a door to his future career.  

Caught between his love of geology, plants, and ecology, Jackson was struggling to decide his next step. Luckily, the solution came amid an undergraduate assignment to locate and describe a Pleistocene geologic deposit.  Jackson remembered a unique glacial deposit near an outdoor education facility where he once worked where “at the very base of the bluff where the stream was cutting into it, there was this gray clay material, glacial material”. Breaking off a chunk of this material to see what was inside, he found there were little wood slivers in it. He thought, “wow, what's wood doing in there? That's kind of weird”.

After writing up the assignment, his professors suggested a way to tie his interests together: a Master’s project in paleoecology.

“It solved my (career) dilemma because I didn't have to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I could be simultaneously a botanist, a paleontologist, a climatologist, geologist, ecologist, et cetera, et cetera. I could just specialize in a multidisciplinary area.”

Yet Jackson was slightly daunted by the idea of trying for a PhD after completing his Master’s. Like many students, the idea of earning a PhD seemed out of reach for someone like him.

Still, Jackson persevered, immersing himself in scientific literature and discovering a deep interest in ancient climate change. His research project would evolve into a study of climate change impacts on Adirondack forests after the ice sheets receded. The project involved Jackson trying to understand how climate change of the past 12,000 years affected the migration of tree species, their population dynamics, and their elevational ranges. This research highlighted some fundamental ecological questions for him.


Studying Change, and Changing Careers

Jackson’s interest in ancient climates and history made him uniquely qualified to better understand the modern challenge of climate change. Few ecologists in the 70s and 80s were paying attention to the ecological effects of climate change. “A couple dozen people in my field understood something about climate change and how it affects ecosystems. We were the people who knew something, which was better than nothing,” he remembers.

Jackson began receiving numerous invitations to speak and write book chapters on the topic as he and others in the field tried to fill the void of knowledge surrounding climate change. However, Jackson felt a shift when natural resource managers started asking him to teach them about climate change.

This brought up his old desire to do something about the environment. “I enjoyed all those discussions and I realized that there are a lot of really interesting and really smart people out there in the management sector, and they need help.”

As a professor at University of Wyoming, Jackson was pulled into more and more conversations on the practical application of climate change science, especially for adaptation. However, Jackson realized the discipline of ecology lacked fundamental language to describe and understand environmental change. By developing conceptual frameworks to explain environmental change, he found that they became useful not only for explaining the past, but for trying to project what would happen in the future.

Image: Stephen T. Jackson Fellow
Former USGS scientist Stephen T. Jackson's research has taken him to a variety of ecosystems across North America.

Understanding the processes of environmental changes gave on-the-ground managers and stewards a way to prepare. Jackson likes to call this approach “two-faced ecology”, a way of looking backwards to see what has happened in the past, then flipping forward to figure out what kinds of things could cause us concern in the future.

This way of looking at climate science eventually attracted him to the CASCs, who had started working to address another problem he was aware of.

“There was a really big gap between the communities of research and the communities of application and practice, and not just a gap. It was almost a chasm.”

Jackson had observed a one-way model of communication where university and federal researchers often talked at resource managers, without having real conversations to listen to the challenges that managers were facing on the ground. Beyond the tensions it caused between the research and application communities, it was also an inefficient way to address climate change.

Experiencing this firsthand and knowing a solution was desperately needed, Jackson began to feel the familiar dilemma from his undergraduate career start creeping in; stay in academia, or make the jump to the federal government and science application?

Just as the Southwest CASC started looking for a Center Director, Jackson took a sabbatical from his university position. Uncertain about leaving academia but open to this new prospect, Jackson applied and got the job. He knew it was the right choice to have the opportunity to better connect researchers with resource managers.


Looking Back, and Moving Forward

After more than 10 years with the CASCs, serving as director of two different Regional CASCs and as Senior Science Advisor to the National CASC on Biodiversity and Climate Change, Jackson is proud of what the CASCs have accomplished. The impact they’ve made in bridging the gap between the research and application communities is notable.

“The folks in the CASC network and a lot of our allies have shifted the culture of how things are done. We're doing great science. But there is also a rapidly growing community of researchers and managers who have skill and experience now in working in this boundary in a fruitful way.”

While Jackson acknowledges that this work is far from complete, he believes there’s a great deal of momentum for change. And that gives him hope.

Change has been the hallmark of his career, but Jackson’s still excited by the change he sees coming for the future of climate science. He believes the practice of climate adaptation will become more complex as we gain a better understanding of the ways our adaptation strategies interact with the environment and society.

“But I'm very optimistic because climate adaptation science has been a very adaptive science and a very nimble one. And I think that's going to continue.”

As he enters a retirement filled with science writing, hiking, and riding his horse, he assures us that he’ll still be around. Steve will continue as an emeritus scientist, continuing to help move climate adaptation science forward as he transitions into this new chapter.

Good luck Steve!

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