A Star Goes Out: The Legacy of Molly Macauley

The tragic and untimely death of Molly Macauley cut short the brilliant career of one of environmental and space economics’ shining stars, but the impact of her life and work continues to shape science and policy.

Molly K. Macauley, Ph.D., former vice president of research and senior fellow at Resources For the Future, pioneered the field of space economics and changed how Earth observations are used to create policy and legislation. Macauley was slain near her home on July 8, 2016. Image Credit: Resources for the Future

On a warm, windless night in July, a star went out beneath the passing clouds in the Roland Park community of Baltimore, Maryland. An unknown assailant took the life of Molly K. Macauley, vice president for research at the Washington, D.C., think tank Resources for the Future (RFF).

Macauley was highly respected for her personal and professional integrity, and for her remarkable ability to synthesize technical, social and economic issues to solve problems across disciplines and at the intersection of public policy and private enterprise. She was reportedly stabbed near her home while walking her dogs; no arrests have been made. Macauley was 59.

“There was something in Molly that was very pure,” said Lea Harvey, vice president for development and corporate secretary at RFF. Harvey described Macauley as a one-of-a-kind friend and treasured colleague, adding, “She was driven by very good intentions.”

Macauley demonstrated this drive during her career, most of which she spent at RFF amassing a staggering amount of published works as well as memberships and appointments to advisory boards, committees and professional societies. She served as a reviewer for nearly two dozen agency and academic journals including the National Science Foundation, National Academy of Sciences, NASA and Space Policy. She testified before Congress on space and environmental economics and received  awards including the NASA Award for contributions to policy development for U.S. Earth observations in 2002, and a posthumously awarded Lifetime Achievement Award from Women In Aerospace.

Macauley also spent considerable time mentoring early career professionals.

“Molly was my introduction to Washington,” said Lea Shanley, co-executive director of the South Big Data Regional Innovation Hub. “She connected me with people in her network, she provided technical expertise, encouragement and advice on how to navigate Washington.”

Shanley admired Macauley for her forthrightness and ability to address difficult issues tactfully.

“If there were things that needed to be changed or improved, she had no fear,” Shanley said. She adds, “She was not just a mentor but an advocate.”

Given recent scholarship examining the roll of mentors in the sciences, Macauley’s efforts to mentor others not only helped advance individual careers but also contributed to advancing science and maintaining an influential presence in the field as a nation.

Space Economics

Alexander Macdonald, senior economic adviser at NASA Headquarters, is another former mentee of Macauley; he marvels at the depth and breadth of her work.

“She very much pioneered space economics. She was involved in so many things. Even when she wasn’t actively doing research, she was constantly involved in the discussions around space science and policy in Washington, D.C. and really contributed in lots of ways that she never gets credit for. She was open and free with her ideas.”

Geosynchronous orbit. Animation Credit: Talifero for Wikimedia Commons

Macauley was one of the first people to apply economic analysis to space development and satellite utilization. Satellites and remote sensing systems developed by the aerospace industry have become essential to informing policy and other decision making on Earth.

“In particular she made lasting contributions to the study of economic mechanisms for geosynchronous slot allocation, and how to measure and define the socio-economic value of satellite Earth observations,” Macdonald said.

While allocation of the slots had been a practice before Macauley began working on the concept, it wasn’t based in economic principles and didn’t make the best use of this prime space property. With thousands of satellites already in orbit and more constantly under development, Macauley recognized the value of the geosynchronous belt and realized that allocating designated slots that allow satellites to orbit at the same rate the Earth is turning makes those slots valuable. She wrote in “Space as the Canonical ‘Global Commons’” that this method of allocation would insure the best, bias-free decisions about ”who gets what” and “provide strong incentives to pursue innovation to develop new” ways of using resources effectively. This fit well with Macauley’s guiding principle that resources and technology should be used to do the most good for the most people.

Through ongoing workshops and the book “The Value of Information: Methodological Frontiers and New Applications in Environment and Health,” co-authored with Ramanan Laxminarayan, Macauley synthesized practices from sociology and technology to develop methods for determining the value of Earth observations that are difficult to assign a monetary value to.

Her groundbreaking work in this area created a mechanism that allows scientists and policymakers to understand the value of space and environmental information to the economy. According to Macdonald, it has become the best practice standard within the industry.

Continuing Her Legacy

Harvey said Macauley’s spirit of innovation led to the establishment of a research award at RFF in her name. The New Frontiers Fund, a program Macauley helped to establish to advance research in environmental and resource economics, is being expanded to include  The Molly K. Macauley Award for Research Innovation and Advanced Analytics for Policy.

“We’re going to do our best to continue her work,” Harvey explained. “We think the world needs what Molly brought to it and this is our small way of continuing that. No one can ever replace her but with this award we want people to remember what she brought to our field and to our world and to in some small way, continue that legacy.”

Lorelei Goff writes about science and the environment from Greeneville, Tennessee.

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