Dr. Peter Fox, a titan of the Earth and space science informatics community, passed away on March 27. The news was shared by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where he was Tetherless World Constellation Chair, Director of the Information Technology and Web Science program, and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Computer Science, and Cognitive Science. Fox was 61.
A native of Australia, Fox earned his bachelor of science degree in mathematics and a doctorate in mathematics, both from Monash University in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He joined the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, as a scientist in 1991, rising to chief computational scientist in 1995. Fox left HAO in 2008 to join the RPI faculty, where he made significant contributions to both domain science and informatics as he and his group supported distributed scientific repositories.
Among the many organizations he championed or helped establish during his extremely productive career were the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Earth and Space Science Informatics (ESSI) section, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) ESSI division, the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP), the Australian Earth and Environmental Science Information Partners (E2SIP), the Geological Society of America Geoinformatics and Data Science division, the Research Data Alliance, and the Committee on Data of the International Science Council. His work led to numerous partnerships with NASA, NOAA, USGS, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Fox was involved in many projects with NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project, which said, “The Staff at NASA's ESDIS Project are saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of Dr. Peter Fox. Peter was a well-known figure to many of us working within the broad community of scientists and engineers focusing on the availability and use of Earth science data. In our collaborations, Peter was a proven leader whose innovative drive helped to often illuminate the future of how data and information can be turned into insight and knowledge. Peter was most often a bridge between differing communities of practice; able to derive needs from one group while seeking solutions in another. Peter’s open demeanor and ability to inspire through his thoughtfully crafted presentations and talks were inspirational to many as witnessed by the numerous personal testimonials made to him. Needless to say, those in ESDIS and the NASA family wish to express our heartfelt grief at Peter’s passing and will redouble our work toward those critical societal goals he sought to improve.”
Dr. Rahul Ramachandran, manager of NASA’s Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team (IMPACT) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, said, “Peter’s contributions to the NASA Earth science data community have been immense. His research in informatics and data science has had a lasting impact in defining the direction of science data and information system evolution. But more importantly, he was genuinely selfless in sharing his knowledge and touched so many lives. He taught so many of us to be good researchers, gracious colleagues, supportive mentors, and above all, to be generous human beings.”
Fox was a pioneer in acknowledging the scientific contributions of informatics. This leadership was recognized in 2018 when he became AGU ESSI’s first AGU Fellow. He also was honored in 2018 by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science as an elected Fellow in recognition of his extraordinary achievements in advancing science.
Fox’s participation in ESIP began in 2005 and he founded ESIP’s Semantic Web cluster (now the Semantic Technology Committee) in 2007 to bring global experts together around Earth science semantic technology. He served as ESIP’s president from 2014 to 2016 during a pivotal period of transition.
Former ESIP Executive Director (2010 to 2014) Carol Meyer said, “Peter Fox was a brilliant man, one who had clarity about everything that had his attention. Peter was exceptional in every sense of the word – intelligent, compassionate, talented, thoughtful, generous, stylish, and funny. The world is a better place because of his contributions.”
It would be appropriate to let Fox have the last word. Upon receiving the 2012 Martha Maiden Lifetime Achievement Award from ESIP, one of the many honors recognizing his demonstrated leadership, dedication, and collaborative spirit in advancing the field of Earth science information, he said, “Your opinion of me is none of my business . . . rather I really care about what we’ve done and how we’ve done it as that is the most important thing.”