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President's Corner

The challenges and stresses of change

In discussion, reading, and reflection over the past several months, I have been struck by the number of significant, often stressful, changes, driven largely by a rapidly evolving society, that are impacting the UCAR community, as well as academic and research institutions around the world. This topic has been the subject of studies and many reports, for example, Stresses on Research and Education at Colleges and Universities--A Joint Project of the National Science Board and the Government-University-Industry Roundtable (Final report of the campus-based discussion at Texas A&M University, October 1993).

I think of the changes in three general categories:

* competition for research support

* program priorities and emphases, and who establishes them

* institutional changes

Competition for support. Scientific research budgets are decreasing in real terms at the same time that the number of scientists, programs, and institutions seeking funding is on the rise. Furthermore, in addition to competition with peers, which we are used to, competition is increasing within and between disciplines, between institutions and among organizational units of single institutions, and between whole but very disparate areas of federal and state support, such as arts, social programs, science, and defense. This appears to be the environment that will persist for some time and one that will require revised expectations and new approaches. UCAR Trustee William Bishop (University of Nevada Desert Research Institute) has observed that the 40-year period from roughly 1950 to 1990 was a particularly benign time for science, compared both with the attitudes and support for research that preceded this period and what we are likely to face in the future.

Program priorities and emphases. Research directions are increasingly being established by interests and people other than scientists themselves. The need to solve deep societal problems, to establish a sound environmental future for the world and increasingly to participate as constructive members of the global commons has led to views of strategic research that are held strongly and are implemented through funding choices made by people relatively remote from the scientific community. So at the same time that scientists are under increasingly restrictive budget pressures and growing and new arenas of competition, their work is also being shaped by others in new ways where the ground rules are not known. In a recent speech to the Universities Research Association Council of Presidents, Congressman George Brown put it this way:

I believe that the Congress and the nation can and does expect more from the research community. At the very least, it expects us to exercise a modicum of common sense. And common sense dictates that we make good on our promises of societal benefit, where those benefits are no longer the more obvious ones of national military security. Common sense dictates that we envision a new definition of security based on a healthy, growing and sustainable economy; an improved global environment; and--most important--a just and equitable society, first in our own country, and then in an increasingly interdependent global economy.

In addition, there are important new needs that research and academic institutions are being asked to help meet. These include education; outreach to the general public, to industry, and to all levels of federal, local, and state governments; enhancing and rewarding diversity in the work force; and technology transfer. Although most people would agree that these are worthy pursuits, some see them as distracting and peripheral.

Combined with two other generic factors--family issues associated with an increasing number of two-professional households and ever-accreting requirements for accountability--the people working in scientific and educational institutions find themselves in a very different and more stressful environment than previously.

Institutional changes. In this world of rapid and accelerating change, institutions strive to adapt their structure, practices, and policies to respond; those that do not do so in a timely and effective manner do not survive. The challenge is to make the changes while maintaining balance and flexibility, sustaining staff and programs of quality and importance, and moving with some degree of reasoned deliberation. UCAR Trustee Martin Jischke, president of Iowa State University, describes the situation this way: "In order to be successful in this new environment, universities will have to be flexible, responsive, and innovative in both what we do and where we go for funding."

Institutional changes in places like NCAR and other UCAR programs include, for example, revision of performance review and appointment policies, establishment of interdisciplinary programs, provision of training programs in matters such as management and cultural diversity, and requirements (and reward) for participation in outreach and education programs. Although these can be stressful to our staff, I believe they are necessary and constructive changes that will make UCAR better prepared to contribute to a rapidly changing society in the future.


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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Mon Apr 3 17:49:41 MDT 2000