When scientists first discovered a fast-growing hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer in 1985, they debated whether it was due to normal climate variation or the result of human activity. It was chemist and former Pew environmental scholar Mario J. Molina who demonstrated the link between ozone depletion and the chlorofluorocarbons released by manmade aerosol sprays, refrigerator coolants, and plastic foams. His research led directly to environmental policy changes around the globe, and earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995. His death on Oct. 7 is a reminder that investment in scientific excellence can help find solutions to heal a damaged planet.
Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor at Oregon State University, former administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a 1992 Pew environmental scholar, said, “While we mourn Mario’s passing, we should also celebrate his achievements by redoubling our efforts to address climate change and its intersection with equity and justice. He understood the need to get scientific findings into the hands of decision-makers, and urged the family of Pew scholars to focus both on ensuring their science was rigorous and communicating it effectively.” Lubchenco added that Molina “was instrumental in shaping the early Pew fellows program, enriching and infusing it with a commitment to people and the future.”
A native of Mexico, Molina shared the Nobel prize with collaborator F. Sherwood Rowland and with Paul Crutzen, who made an earlier, foundational discovery about the power of nitrogen oxides to decompose atmospheric ozone. Molina was named a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment in 1990; the program later became the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. His goal for his Pew-funded work was to deepen understanding of the connections between Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere. Along the way, Molina created a new technique to analyze and monitor trace chemicals in the atmosphere, and co-authored a document on sustainable development for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Just three years after his work with Pew, Molina received the Nobel Prize, and in 2013 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his life’s work. In recent years, he dedicated himself to investigating the chemistry and microphysics of various atmospheric aerosols and developing methods to conduct integrated assessments to address air pollution in large urban areas, particularly those in the developing world.
From its inception in 1990, the Pew environmental scholars program, which in 1996 became the marine fellows program, has created a strong community of global scientists who meet yearly to discuss their work and share ideas. Their research supports ocean conservation and demonstrates the complex interactions of ecosystems and the impacts of human activity. Mario Molina’s extraordinary career is just one example of how investments in talented, midcareer scientists can advance fields of study and leave a lasting impact on our global society.
Polita Glynn is project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation.