Ian Owens, a distinguished evolutionary biologist and currently the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s deputy director, has been named the next executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Owens will take the helm of the 106-year-old institution on July 1. He will also hold an appointment as professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
Owens will succeed John Fitzpatrick, who has led the Cornell Lab since 1995.
Originally from Yorkshire, England, Owens has previously been director at the Natural History Museum in London and a professor at Imperial College London.
“Ian Owens brings to CALS an incredible wealth of knowledge about birds, passion for connecting the public to scientific discoveries, and leadership in environmental big data,” said Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS. “We are delighted about him directing the Lab of Ornithology’s renowned impact in global sustainability, citizen science, and the worldwide preservation and understanding of the wonders of birds.”
Linda Macaulay, chair of the Cornell Lab’s administrative board and co-chair of the search committee, cited Owens’ influential academic career, deep knowledge of administration and finances, thoughtful leadership style and lifelong love of birds.
“Ian Owens will embrace what the Lab stands for,” Macaulay said, “and move us forward through the 21st century, to continue the incredible successes we have made in science and outreach, and to inform conservation as no other organization in the world can.”
Owens arrives after more than two decades of rapid growth at the Cornell Lab, which has emerged as a world leader in ornithology, big data and tech innovation, citizen science and outreach.
The next phase of growth, Owens said, hinges on scaling the Lab’s ability to work with tremendous amounts of data and to make its work accessible to even more people around the world – all while retaining the Lab’s mission and spirit of creativity.
Improving diversity is key to achieving real conservation in the world today, Owens said. “We need to use the special power of birds,” he said, “to broaden the coalition of people who are in this game with us, who value nature and value birds.
“The Lab was born to understand birds,” he said, “and that remains its primary driving focus. But now the relationship between birds and people is going to be really important. The Lab has done a superb job of setting itself for that big challenge, and it’s going to be exciting to see where we go next.”
For more than 25 years, Fitzpatrick guided the organization as it grew from a few dozen staff members to its current size of 250, with an annual operating budget of $35 million. He praised the search committee’s decision.
“It means a lot to me personally that I can hand off the baton to Ian and have 100% confidence,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s a genuine bird person and has done very significant research both in evolutionary ecology and in global-scale conservation. We’re getting a real star here.”
Hugh Powell is senior science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.