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President’s Corner

The next five years: UCAR’s new cooperative agreement with NSF to manage NCAR

by Richard Anthes, UCAR president

NSB’s policy on expiring awards

“Now, therefore, be it RESOLVED, that the National Science Board: Affirms its strong support for the principle that expiring awards are to be recompeted unless it is judged to be in the best interest of U.S. science and engineering not to do so. This position is based on the conviction that peer-reviewed competition and recompetition is the process most likely to assure the best use of NSF funds for supporting research and education.”

Resolution approved by the NSB on 13 November 1997

The histories of UCAR and NCAR have been intertwined for nearly half a century. In 1959, UCAR was formed as a nonprofit private corporation by 14 research universities to create and manage a national center that would complement and serve scientists in academia. NCAR began shortly afterward, in 1960, with a grant from NSF (see the "UCAR at 25" report) and became an NSF Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC).

UCAR is now a consortium of 73 universities (see the article in this issue on our new members). Through NSF’s steady and nurturing support, NCAR and the university community have grown and prospered, accomplishing much in the way of science, technology transfer, education, and human resource development. This partnership between multiple universities, a national center, and a federal funding agency is unique in the world.

UCAR and NCAR have been extensively and regularly reviewed over their histories. From 1987 to 2002, UCAR wrote proposals to NSF every five years to continue managing and operating NCAR. NSF decided in 2003 to “compete” the management of NCAR for the first time in NCAR and UCAR’s history. This was in spite of uniformly positive reviews of past proposals and of the performance of UCAR and NCAR. The reason for the competition was the National Science Board (NSB) policy, adopted in November 1997, that all NSF awards should be periodically competed as well as reviewed for scientific excellence.

UCAR President Richard Anthes signs cooperatuve agreement.

UCAR president Richard Anthes signs the new cooperative agreement with NSF. Looking on are UCAR personnel who were central to the agreement negotiations: (left to right) Katy Schmoll, vice president for finance and administration; Jeff Reaves, associate vice president for business services; Gina Taberski, manager of sponsored agreements; and Meg McClellan, UCAR general counsel. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

The competition unfolded in several stages, beginning in March 2006 with a request for a 10-page capability statement. In January 2007, NSF released its full solicitation, requesting preliminary proposals by 13 April and full proposals (by invitation only) by 31 August. After we submitted our preliminary and full proposals, NSF convened an anonymous panel of reviewers which met in October 2007. Based on their comments, NSF sent UCAR a set of 19 questions, which we answered in January 2008. In May, the NSB, acting upon the recommendation of NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences (ATM), approved NSF entering into negotiations with UCAR for another five-year cooperative agreement, with the option to continue for another five years without competition provided that UCAR was appropriately reviewed during the first five years. Finally, on 15 October, we signed a new cooperative agreement with NSF that extends through September 2013.

Putting it together

Knowing that UCAR faced an unprecedented task in competing for the management of NCAR, we began preparing more than two years in advance of the formal solicitation. Central to this was the development of new strategic plans for UCAR, as well as for NCAR, UOP, UCAR Finance and Administration, and UCAR Education and Outreach. Click here to see these and other related documents, including NSF’s 2006 strategic plan.

Other studies carried out during this period included strategic analyses of space needs for UCAR and NCAR, a study of appropriate metrics for judging the quantity and quality of UCAR programs, and an assessment of field program support at UCAR. Development of all of these analyses and strategic plans involved significant stakeholder input and provided a strong foundation for the actual proposal writing process. A related effort that provided us with independent analysis and information was a 2007 study by the National Research Council’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate on modes of community support.

Comments from the NSF review panel on the UCAR proposal

“The UCAR Proposal for the management and operations of NCAR is founded on a long and often remarkably successful period of management of NCAR by UCAR. Since its founding in 1960, UCAR has provided management oversight during which NCAR has evolved into a world-class institution that has produced outstanding science, increasingly fostered diversity within the community it serves, and provided a range of community-wide scientific infrastructure and facility needs of the atmospheric and related science community in the U.S. The Review Panel wants to note that the UCAR/NCAR proposal is intellectually comprehensive and impressive in its detail. The connecting of the UCAR/NCAR strategic goals and priorities to the NSF Strategic Plan and to other documented planning (e.g., the National Research Council’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate) strategic guidance report and long-range perspectives is commendable and adequately documented.”

Another important activity was a comprehensive community survey in April 2005, asking about all UCAR/NCAR/UOP programs. This followed a similar survey in 2000 (see “On the Web” below). The extensive feedback from our 2005 survey indicated significant use of and support for virtually all programs, and in most cases a demand for increased capabilities and services. We will embark on another community survey in the near future; together with the 2000 and 2005 results, it will help provide longitudinal data from our users and colleagues.

The UCAR proposal itself was (and is)confidential because of the competitive nature of the process. However, UCAR involved the community in three ways—the University Relations Committee (URC, now known as the President’s Advisory Committee on University Relations), the Board of Trustees, and an independent group of reviewers (the “red team”) who commented on a near-final draft of the proposal. I am extremely grateful for the hard work and terrific input provided by these people.

What’s next?

Given this long and extensive process, what new activities are on the horizon for the next five years? Two important developments have occurred since the writing of the proposal and strategic plans. Eric Barron succeeded Tim Killeen on 1 July as NCAR director. And federal science budgets have remained flat—thus, sub-inflationary—in spite of presidential and congressional support for increases. Thus we enter the new cooperative agreement with new NCAR leadership and an unexpectedly constrained budget that may remain so for some time.

Distinguishing UCAR from NCAR

In its reply to UCAR’s capability statement in 2006 (see main article), NSF shared its view that the statement did not distinguish clearly enough between NCAR and its manager, UCAR. Clarifying the distinction between UCAR management and NCAR—and, to some extent, the UCAR Office of Programs (UOP)—can be a challenge. As noted above, NCAR and UCAR were created together, and this distinction between the two may not be evident from the outside—or even from the inside. Both NCAR and UCAR staff are paid and employed by UCAR. UCAR and NCAR staff work together in many ways and share in UCAR management decisions. In most practical ways, the relationship between UCAR management and NCAR has been collegial and cooperative, as opposed to a strictly formal and distanced manager-managee relationship.

With this context in mind, three high-priority activities from the proposal are now under way. First, a new NCAR strategic plan is being produced with extensive community input. Second, a new committee of the UCAR Board of Trustees has been formed: the NCAR Budget and Programs Committee, which will work closely with UCAR and NCAR management. We felt that additional attention to the programs and budgets of NCAR was warranted beyond what the board as a whole could carry out. Finally, UCAR will lead the development of an NCAR workforce management plan, which will take a comprehensive look at the changing workforce in general and how NCAR can optimize its mix of employees to carry out its mission and programs.

NCAR’s highest program priorities are to create a new supercomputing facility in partnership with various parties in the state of Wyoming, and to develop an Earth System Model. Development of the Wyoming partnership and plans for the supercomputing center continue to proceed (see sidebar). The Earth System Model development will likely involve several modeling approaches as well as a wide spectrum of university and federal researchers, building upon experience with the Community Climate System Model and other NCAR community models.

While we are proud to have won the first competition for the management of NCAR, we realize that our real work—serving our community and advancing the science—continues as always. We look forward to working with NCAR management, NSF, and the community over the years ahead.

Designing NCAR’s new supercomputing center

Map showing location of NCAR's new supercomputing center

Now in the design stage, NCAR's new supercomputing center will be located in the North Range Business Park just southwest of Cheyenne, Wyoming, about 90 miles north of Denver. (Illustration courtesy Cheyenne LEADS.)

Early in 2007, NCAR and UCAR announced a partnership to build a new supercomputing data center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contingent upon approval from NSF and the Wyoming legislature. The partnership includes the University of Wyoming, the State of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, the Wyoming Business Council, and Cheyenne Light, Fuel & Power. A site has been identified on the city’s southwest edge (see map). Krista Laursen, who served as NCAR’s project director for the acquisition of the NSF/NCAR Gulfstream-V aircraft, is overseeing NCAR’s planning process for the new center.

This past August, NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences (ATM) gave the go-ahead to UCAR, NCAR, and the Wyoming partners to initiate the supercomputing facility design process. Under the terms of the plan proposed to and accepted by NSF and the UW trustees, UW has agreed to fund the initial facility design effort. ATM will provide an augmentation needed to meet NCAR and UCAR project management expenses for fiscal year 2009. A multistep review and approval process for the supercomputing center development effort will be implemented by NSF. This will be very similar to the phased project review and approval sequence that has been established for NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction projects.

Working closely with UW personnel, NCAR and UCAR project team members are currently engaged in the architecture and engineering (A&E) firm selection process. The present schedule calls for the A&E contract award to be made in early calendar year 2009, with facility design beginning immediately afterward. Completion of the initial facility design effort is targeted for summer 2009, at which time detailed facility design information and construction cost estimates will be formally submitted to NSF as components of a comprehensive project plan. Continuation of the project to final facility design and construction will be contingent upon satisfactory review of the materials submitted to NSF.

















On the Web

Strategic plans and related documents

Background on community surveys in 2000 and 2005

Strategic Planning at UCAR: What's in it for universities?

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