The changing face of NCAR

When Tim Killeen became NCAR director in 2000, he saw a center that was doing much already—and one that could do far more. Shortly after Killeen’s arrival, NCAR embarked on an ambitious strategic plan. That plan is now bearing fruit in several ways. NCAR is refreshing its science staff and investigating a host of new topics, with a university presence that leaders hope to see strengthened further.

Emma Kavanagh, a postdoctoral researcher in NCAR’s Advanced Study Program, explains her work to HAO scientist Hanli Lu (left) in a poster session held by the Early Scientist Career Assembly at NCAR on 9 September. The ECSA is one of several new venues for interaction among young NCAR scientists. (Photo by Bob Henson.)

The goal of NCAR’s strategic plan, released in October 2001 after more than a year of development, is to build on the center’s fundamental strengths and set its course amid several accelerating trends:

• The Internet is freeing long-distance collaborators from the tyranny of distance.
• Population growth and mobility are enhancing the potential impact of extreme weather and climate change.
• The view of our planet as an integrated ecosystem has stimulated work that transcends disciplinary bounds.

“Our strategy focuses on the challenges that are appropriate for a national center to address in order to provide both leadership and support to the broad research community in areas of scientific significance and national importance,” says Killeen. The central theme is integration—“bringing together the people, ideas, and tools to make major advances in our science andto foster communication, creativity,and collaboration.”

Rearranging the jigsaw

Early on, NCAR’s strategic planners saw that the center needed to go beyond its divisional and program boundaries, most of which were established in the late 1980s. The answer, they decided, was a program of initiatives: focused efforts that support NCAR‘s mission in areas that fall between disciplinary cracks or where new observing and modeling tools dictate fresh approaches.

Shortly after the strategic plan was released, an opportunity fund provided seed money through a competitive process, overseen by Killeen’s office, to a set of 19 initiatives launched late in 2001. Each initiative is crafted to involve the university community in some way. A set of new awards this fall will total some$2 million. Each proposal is limited to a maximum of $500,000 per year for up to three years of support. A separate process funds the 11 ongoing initiatives.

“The proliferation of ambitious plans is leading us to reexamine NCAR’s structure,” says NCAR deputy director Larry Winter. “We want to make sure that we are organized in such a way that we can effectively pursue these new directions.” NCAR leaders are now working on an institutional realignment, to be announced in the next few months.

According to the 2001 strategic plan, “There is a healthy tension between the ongoing research and service of the core program and the emerging new challenges and initiatives.” As onemight expect, this has produced much staff debate concerning priorities. Killeen notes that NCAR’s divisions—where the great majority of the center’s funding flows—continue to carry out excellent science that is complemented by the initiatives.

“The initiative process provides NCAR with an opportunity to foster new or emerging scientific areas, while at the same time building on our core disciplinary strengths,” says Killeen. Through the initiatives, “things are happening that wouldn‘t be happening otherwise.”

A place for new faculty to share ideas

Another tool is helping to spark interaction among NCAR’s newest scientists and their university peers. NCAR’s Early Career Scientists Assembly, formed in 2000, is a prime outlet for networking and interaction among the center’s growing cadre of first-level scientists (Scientist I). Since Killeen’s arrival, NCAR has worked to adjust an increasingly top-heavy scientific hierarchy by allocating funds for a few new first-level scientists each year. Thus far, 24 have been hired, quadrupling the ranks of NCAR researchers at this level.

Among a number of events sponsored by ECSA to date is its Junior Faculty Forum on Future Scientific Directions, which brought about 40 junior faculty from 36 universities to Boulder on 18–20 June. That total represented more than 10% of the nation’s pool of junior faculty in the atmospheric and related sciences, according to ECSA chair Daniel Marsh. “We invited a broad spectrum of people who wouldn’t necessarily interact otherwise,” says Marsh.

The forum discussions, stimulated by white papers distributed in advance, turned out to be uncommonly far-ranging. “They asked really interesting, 0th-order questions,” says Killeen. In a carbon-cycle session, for instance, “They didn’t ask about the fluxes from leaf canopies—they asked how we even know there is a carbon cycle.”

A major goal of the forum, says Marsh—aside from “getting a bunch of very smart people in the room to talk about hot science topics”—was to bring about interactions between NCAR scientists and junior faculty. “In that respect, it came off very well,” he says.

Marsh and the other ECSA members hope to make the forum an annual event. “It turned out that the conference-goers were interested in things that significantly overlap with the NCAR initiatives,” Marsh says. Killeen noticed that the participants “were just so happy to be interacting with like-minded peers. We hope we‘ll get some of them as co-leads for initiatives. It‘ll give some of these pre-tenured faculty a chance to get some national exposure.”

by Bob Henson


Also in this issue...

Initiatives in Brief
Geographic Information Systems

WRF's new construction zone
Hurricane-tested WRF nails Isabel

UCAR Foundation launches tech-transfer firm

Women in meteorology: how long a minority?

Building a home for HIAPER


President’s Corner - Leaders: Born or made?
Congress looks at climate change

Web Watch - Soundings in action

Science Bit

UCAR Community Calendar