In September of 2019 Dr. Richard N. Palmer, P.E., is stepping down as head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department at UMass Amherst after 11 successful and productive years. He is also the university director of the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (NE CASC), which he helped to establish in 2012 with a $7.5-million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to study how climate change affects ecosystems, wildlife, water, and other natural resources. Palmer was inducted by the American Society of Civil Engineering as a Distinguished Member in 2017 and was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 2014 by UMass Amherst.
The NE CASC is one of eight regional climate centers created by the Interior Department to study the effects of climate change.
According to Distinguished Professor of Geosciences Ray Bradley, NE CASC principal investigator and director of the Climate Systems Research Center: “Rick Palmer has been an outstanding director of the NE CASC since it was established at UMass in 2012, creating a nationally recognized center of excellence for understanding how climate change will affect the region's natural and cultural resources. The success of the center is the result of Rick's great leadership and vision.”
During his time at UMass, Palmer has led the establishment and successful “re-competition” of the NE CASC in 2019. This center had “base funding” from 2012 to 2019 of more than $10.5 million and focused its research on engaging natural resource managers and other stakeholders in evaluating the impacts that climate change has in the Northeast. The center has recently been extended for another five years (through 2024).
Palmer also chaired the CEE department during a period of expansion of its sponsored research, growing from around $5 million per year to nearly $13.5 million annually, and the growth of its faculty during the hiring of 17 tenure-track positions. Four faculty during this time were awarded NSF CAREER Awards while at UMass. This hiring also significantly increased the number of women and minority faculty in the department.
At UMass Palmer also established the Academy of Distinguished Alumni for CEE, recognizing outstanding graduates who have made significant contributions to their professions and to the community. During Palmer’s time as chair the number of Ph.D. students tripled. Currently the ratio of Ph.D. to Masters students is approximately one to one in the department with 60 of each.
The tributes from Palmer’s colleagues are many and exemplary.
“Working with Rick as the university director of the NE CASC over the past eight years has been one of the highlights of my 35 years as a faculty at UMass Amherst,” says Professor Curt Griffin, the director of the School of Earth & Sustainability and head of the Department of Environmental Conservation. “The incredible success of the NE CASC is due in no small part to Rick. He set a very high bar for other climate centers to emulate.”
Another colleague, former NE CASC Federal Director Mary Ratnaswamy, says that “It was Dr. Palmer's scientific leadership and vision that brought the center to the University of Massachusetts Amherst from its earliest vision and creation of a tremendous consortium of scientists. His depth of experience with the challenges of adaptive science focused on meeting partner needs was essential to the tremendous success of the NE CASC as documented in its first five-year review.”
Palmer’s primary research area is in evaluating the impacts of climate change on water resources. As he says, “This includes drought planning, real-time water resource management, and the application of decision support to civil engineering management problems. In all cases, I attempt to apply structured planning approaches. I helped develop the field of ‘shared vision modeling’ in water resources planning and pioneered the use of ‘virtual drought exercises.’”
Palmer will be succeeded as head of the CEE Department by Dr. John E. Tobiason, P.E., a faculty member in the department since 1987 and a longtime faculty advisor for the UMass Amherst chapter of Engineers Without Borders. “Since he arrived in 2007,” says Tobiason about Palmer’s tenure, “Rick Palmer has been very effective as CEE Department Head. He has been an excellent communicator and has worked tirelessly to promote and recognize the excellence of faculty, staff, and students in CEE.”
CEE Professor Michael Knodler, director of MassSafe, perhaps best sums up Palmer’s time at the helm: “The CEE department, and the University of Massachusetts in general, have been quite fortunate to have had a department head at the caliber of Rick Palmer. His unique ability to advocate for the department and its faculty, while providing a cordial and supportive environment, has led to unparalleled successes over the course of his tenure in this role.” (August 2019)