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Putting it together

Integrated Science Program provides a new model for crosscutting research

by Bob Henson

NCAR is taking a page from one of its most durable programs to help bolster a new one. Scientists working on interdisciplinary research are now part of the Integrated Science Program, housed in the NCAR Directorate. The program will place these crosscutting scientists in divisions and laboratories across NCAR in much the same way that NCAR’s Advanced Study Program finds niches for postdoctoral researchers.

Peter Backlund

Peter Backlund. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

“ISP is very closely modeled on ASP,” says Peter Backlund. He became the new program’s founding director on 23 March while continuing as head of NCAR research relations. “I look forward to playing a more direct role in sustaining and promoting NCAR science,” he says of his new position.

ISP replaces the former Institute for the Study of Society and Environment (ISSE) and The Institute for Integrative and Multidisciplinary Earth Studies (TIIMES). Together, ISSE and TIMES housed the equivalent of about 30 full-time staff. However, since many of these were quarter-time or half-time appointments, the number of staff actually associated with the institutes was closer to 100, including physical as well as social scientists. Backlund is now working with former ISSE and TIIMES scientists and programs to help place them within the new structure.

As a model for ISP, ASP’s structure is a time-tested one. Since the 1960s, the program has hosted hundreds of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students for one- and two-year appointments. Each participant is part of ASP while also forging an affiliation with an NCAR science division or laboratory. For ISP, the plan is to give each scientist a sense of group identity within the program as well as a formal affiliation with a division, laboratory, or institute. According to Backlund, this structure is particularly important for developing integrative research that more closely connects social science work formerly located within ISSE with physical science in other parts of NCAR.

“The idea of ISP is to help the divisions become more integrative themselves,” says Backlund. By its very nature, crosscutting work is intended to move beyond traditional disciplinary lines. In scattering ISP staff throughout the institution, Backlund and colleagues hope that more interdisciplinary bridges can be built.

With an anticipated budget in the neighborhood of $4 to $5 million, ISP will cover the salaries of its scientists placed throughout the institution. “A dollar for ISP is always going to be a dollar for another part of NCAR,” says Backlund. The arrangement means
he’ll take on something of a program manager role: examining funding opportunities, hunting for well-qualified scientists, and identifying divisional homes for them.

On the Web

ISP rationale (January 2009)


“We have a set of core programs that we will nurture,” says Backlund. These include such ISSE/TIIMES priorities as the water cycle, biogeosciences, and upper troposphere/lower stratosphere; climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability; and the multiyear field project BEACHON (Biosphere-atmosphere Exchange of Aerosols within Cloud, Carbon and Hydrologic cycles, including Organics and Nitrogen). Backlund also hopes to serve as a broker for creation of new integrative programs with divisions, universities, and other collaborators.

In addition to nurturing long-term programs, ISP will support workshops and seminars, and make funding available for new, short-term integrative projects. “My goal is to help scientists come up with the best ideas and then facilitate those ideas,” says Backlund. “If scientists get together and have an interesting, integrative idea, they’ll be able to pitch ISP for a couple of postdocs or support staff so the idea can go ahead. We’re also going to try to put together proposals that tie NCAR with universities on large-scale, interdisciplinary projects. And I anticipate that we’ll have a very robust visitor program.”

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