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A changing climate for research

October meetings cast an eye toward 2009

by Bob Henson

Studying how best to deal with climate change was the front-and-center topic at the 48th annual meeting of UCAR members, which brought more than 120 member and affiliate representatives and 20 early-career faculty to Boulder on 14–15 October. But the political and fiscal climate for science research also got its share of attention, with a global economic meltdown under way and a U.S. presidential election pending.

Groups assembled for the weeklong October meetings included:

  • the UCAR Board of Trustees (BOT);
  • the Academic Affiliates Program (AAP);
  • UCAR member representatives;
  • the President’s Advisory Committee on University Relations (PACUR); and
  • heads and chairs of geoscience departments for a biennial two-day gathering sponsored by the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union.

Below are a few highlights. All presentations from the members and heads-and-chairs meetings can be downloaded from the follow-up website (see “On the Web”). These include full reports on UCAR, NCAR, and UOP activities over the past year.

Bringing global change home

It’s catch-up time for adaptation research, according to Rosina Bierbaum (University of Michigan). In her keynote talk at the UCAR Forum, Bierbaum—who is now on leave from the University of Michigan to codirect a World Bank study on global change and development—expressed concern that U.S. climate-change studies have underplayed adaptation research during years of controversy around detecting and attributing climate change. “We’ve lost at least a decade in getting [adaptation] onto the research agenda,” said Bierbaum. Federal funding continues to fall well short of the mark given the urgency of the problem, she added.

On the Web

UCAR 2008 October meetings follow-up site


Bierbaum sees faculty at UCAR universities as key partners in fostering “adaptive management” across many sectors and regions. “All of our institutions are located in particular places that have particular problems,” said Bierbaum. She suggested that UCAR and its members launch regional vulnerability assessments, help develop toolkits for land managers and urban planners, and support public discussion at many levels, from the Rotary Club to the White House. And as strange as it may seem in tight budgetary times, scientists should get ready for the possibility of a major funding boost should carbon legislation come to pass, said Bierbaum. “We should plan ahead; we shouldn’t just react.”

In her keynote talk on mitigation efforts, Vicki Arroyo (Pew Center on Global Climate Change) surveyed the legislative landscape. During their campaigns, both President-elect Barack Obama and John McCain expressed support for cap-and-trade legislation that would allow polluters to buy, sell, and trade the right to emit carbon within an overall national target. It’s likely that one of several cap-and-trade bills now in Congress will gain presidential support in the first half of 2009, said Arroyo, though the financial crisis may complicate matters.

In the meantime, 19 states and three regions have already set their own greenhouse-gas emissions targets. “The question is not whether responsibility for climate change action should rest exclusively with the federal government or the states, but rather how they should share responsibility,” says Arroyo.

Atmospheric scientists may find themselves working on behalf of cap-and-trade legislation. For example, Arroyo outlined a bill introduced by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) that calls for the National Academy of Sciences to carry out an extensive review every eight years on the bill’s performance and the state of climate-change science. The bill also proposes a science advisory board that would draw 10 to 20 members from government, academic, and nonprofit sectors. For now, Arroyo urged scientists to improve the flow of information to stakeholders and to construct “well-vetted science-based arguments” on what constitutes “dangerous interference with the climate system,” a critical but poorly defined variable in carbon legislation.

After the keynote talks, a set of five breakout groups analyzed how partnerships between decision makers and university scientists are evolving in the fields of agriculture, air quality, forestry, public health, and water. The groups found common ground in several areas, including the need for better cross-discipline communication, more clarity on where regional-scale information is adequate or lacking, and improved tools and training to help decision makers mine data that are often inaccessible to nonspecialists. Reports from each group are available on the meeting follow-up site (see “On the Web”).

To accredit or not to accredit?

Lawyers, doctors, and mechanical engineers, among many others, generally need to graduate from an accredited program in order to practice their chosen professions. Atmospheric science doesn’t have such a requirement. Television weathercasters and consulting meteorologists may opt to be certified by the AMS, but it’s based on their knowledge and coursework rather than the credentials of their undergraduate program.

At the heads and chairs meeting, participants engaged in a lively discussion on whether geoscience programs ought to set up an accreditation process. “We’ve just gone through what you could call the decade of accountability,” said NCAR director Eric Barron. “You’ve seen it influence everybody.”

The American Geological Institute is responding to a request by the Geological Society of America to follow up on a GSA survey regarding interest in accreditation. “The survey itself created a fair bit of angst and upset,” said Christopher Keane, AGI’s director of communications and technology. AGI is moving forward to evaluate community interest, but it recognizes that the discussion must be framed properly, said Keane: “Any move toward accreditation will be disruptive and historic for the profession.”

While noting some benefits to accreditation, such as external review and the internal discussion it generates, Barron cautioned that accreditation in the geosciences could set overly restrictive standards and serve as an enormous time sink for faculty and administrators. “In six years of being a dean at two different universities, I see faculty time as being increasingly eroded,” Barron said.

“I think accreditation suffocates vision,” said Richard Clark (Millersville University), who’s chaired the October meetings of the UCAR Academic Affiliates Program since 1998. Clark worries that the strict coursework specifications of accreditation could pinch off interdisciplinary efforts and limit the ability of departments, especially smaller ones, to evolve organically and meet regional needs.

Participants were mixed on whether accreditation might make a real difference to students and parents. After six years as department head at Jackson State University, Quinton Williams isn’t sure; he said that students never ask about whether his department is accredited. “I’m still not really sold that accreditation would make things any better for us,” said Williams. Anthony Hansen (Saint Cloud State University) had a different take on the matter. As a state comprehensive university, SCSU is forbidden by Minnesota statute to grant Ph.D. degrees. According to Hansen, a school like SCSU can have an “inferiority complex” when compared to a major research institution. “How do we demonstrate that our program is good?” he asked. Hansen noted that SCSU has more accredited programs than any other Midwestern school and that meteorology is considered one of the school’s signature programs. Thus, he said, parents are sometimes surprised to learn that the department isn’t accredited.

Several participants argued for other techniques, such as periodic university-based reviews, that could also help prove a program’s merit. “Our five-year reviews are very stimulating, very exciting,” said Clark. Guidelines are another alternative to accreditation, he added. Clark and other AAP members are now reviewing the AMS curricular guidelines for meteorology programs; these guidelines are updated every five years. Even media-based rankings such as those compiled by Kiplinger’s and U.S. News and World Report can make a difference to parents and students, Clark said.

Comings and goings

New arrivals: UCAR grew to 73 Ph.D.-granting members with the elections of Brown University and the University of Connecticut. The Academic Affiliates Program, which is designed for non–doctoral-granting departments, added the University of Texas at Arlington and Creighton University, boosting the AAP’s membership to 21.

Trustees: The board now includes Mark Abbott (Oregon State University), Roberta Balstad (Columbia University), Fred Carr (University of Oklahoma), and Donald Wuebbles (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Also elected were two at-large members: Richard Clark (Millersville University) and former NASA director Richard Truly.

PACUR: New and reelected members of the President’s Advisory Committee on University Relations include Wendy Abshire (UOP), Lisa Dilling (University of Colorado in Boulder), Gordon Farquharson and Marika Holland (NCAR), and Alan Robock (Rutgers University).

Membership Committee: New to the committee are Nicole Mölders (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Gousheng Liu (Florida State University), and Gerald Mace (University of Utah).

Members’ Nominating Committee: Serving this year are James Anderson (Arizona State University), Otis Brown (University of Miami), Gregory Carmichael (University of Iowa), Nicole Mölders (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Robert Rauber (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Steven Rutledge (Colorado State University), Anne Thompson (Pennsylvania State University), Susan Ustin (University of California, Davis), and Minghua Zhang (Stony Brook University).

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