Image of a cell

Robert W. Kates

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his fundamental contributions to the understanding of natural and man-made hazards, global environmental change, and the prevalence and persistence of world hunger.

Robert W. Kates followed an unconventional path to lead him to his research career. Kates, born in Brooklyn, NY, studied economics at New York University for two years, dropped out and went to work in a steel mill in Indiana. While on vacation with his family in Indiana, he met a naturalist in a state park and the meeting inspired him to become an elementary school teacher. While in night school to become a teacher, he took a geography course, where he stumbled upon his passion.

In the years since, Kates has pursued a single, powerful question: “What is and ought to be the human use of the Earth?” His search for answers led to new insights into reducing world hunger, rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina, and sustainability. Kates has studied why and how people live in places vulnerable to hazards like floods, droughts and hurricanes, and how hazards turn into disasters when they affect communities.

He has created a resource assessment institute in Tanzania, led the World Hunger Program at Brown University, and headed dozens of collaborative projects addressing climate change and other complex challenges. His research has been varied, but Kates says it’s always been driven by one unifying goal: “Research should in some small way help change the world.”

By Jen Santisi