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Summer 2002

New directions for NCAR: An update on our strategic plan

by Tim Killeen, NCAR director

Tim Killeen. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Since NCAR was founded, its mission has been to meet the needs of the university atmospheric science community through its research and facilities. The passage of time has validated this mission, but has also brought increased demands and new possibilities for meeting them. Advances in technology are fundamentally changing the way research is done. Science is becoming more interdisciplinary. Over the next few decades, the pace of change will continue to quicken. Greater scientific understanding—expressed in quantitative terms, wherever possible—will become ever more important as society faces the multifaceted challenges of global environmental change.

In order to address these opportunities, NCAR has evaluated its strengths and resources and discussed options for its future. The resulting strategic plan was finalized during 2001. It was presented at the UCAR members meeting last October and is now being put into place. It has an ambitious agenda, one that extends the original concept of NCAR.

We see NCAR as an integrator—a center for the broad geosciences community that brings together ideas, people, and tools to address the scientific questions that are of critical importance to society. The breadth and depth of NCAR’s disciplinary work enable this vision. We plan to integrate by building on NCAR’s strengths, collaborating with traditional colleagues in academia and government, and forging links with a host of new partners in the industry and policy arenas.

Our strategic plan is not just NCAR’s and UCAR’s. It really belongs to the university community that governs NCAR, and its implementation is being conducted in partnership with the community and NSF. In that context I greatly welcome your comments and suggestions.

Crossing boundaries

At all scales, atmospheric and other environmental research issues are no longer the purview of single disciplines; many now span a wider range of the earth sciences. For example, chemical transport studies require the integration of atmospheric dynamics, radiative transfer, and atmospheric chemistry. Precipitation studies require expertise drawn from experimental and theoretical hydrology, cloud physics, ecosystem dynamics, and large-scale atmospheric circulation. Predictive space weather models require detailed knowledge of solar physics, magnetospheric and ionospheric processes, and the dynamical coupling between upper and lower atmospheres. Some issues range beyond physical science altogether. For instance, socioeconomic studies of severe weather require an integration of qualitative social science and numerical modeling.

Because of these and other similar interconnections—and the need to bring disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary tools to their study—the NCAR strategy involves extending and leveraging the existing divisional programs to enable a series of formidable scientific challenges to be addressed.

NCAR’s nine existing divisions and two interdivisional programs provide the "seed corn" for this approach and serve specific functions and particular segments of the university community. Each division obtains input from external, university-based advisory committees. Divisional programs should, and will, evolve in time in response to scientific challenges. Our strategy includes a willingness to revisit organizational boundaries as called for by scientific priorities.

We began a series of 19 new disciplinary and interdisciplinary initiatives during fiscal year 2002. Eight of these (outlined in the sidebar on page 3) have already developed into major efforts that involve multiple NCAR divisions. Plans and research agendas are being developed for 11 smaller-scale activities.

Each of the 8 larger-scale initiatives represents a key area where substantial progress may result from the type of integrated, interdisciplinary approach facilitated by NCAR and its close connections to the university community. Seven criteria, incorporating the well-known NSF Merit Review Guidelines, were used to determine which scientific initiatives received funding and at what level: scientific excellence, breadth of impact, uniqueness, appropriateness, staff commitment, timeliness, and opportunity.

The larger picture

As we developed our strategic plan, we carefully considered the societal and institutional context in which we find ourselves. For example, the challenges presented by the information technology revolution will affect the fundamental ways that research is conducted. We must develop virtual centers and collaboratories (the very types of capabilities facilitated by the AccessGrid, discussed in the cover story of this issue) as our new workplaces. Data portals, digital libraries, and visualizations will elucidate our understanding. New observing technologies, including remote sensing innovations and nanotechnologies, also hold great potential.

Education at all levels and the effective integration of research and education continue to increase in importance. As society becomes more complex and the interdependence of the Earth system’s components becomes more apparent, we must educate the public—as well as policy and decision makers—about how we humans interact with the Earth system. New knowledge systems and educational products that emerge from the research world will help further this mission.

Finally, more than ever, NCAR will rely on a diverse, thoroughly educated, and highly valued staff. To address a growing demographic imbalance favoring the senior ranks of scientists, NCAR has been increasing the number of junior scientists and building a program of continuous professional training and mentorship available to all staff. As a mature institution, we must ensure that our scientific staff retains a mix of current and future generations of researchers and that this group reflects the diversity in our society.

We are excited about the new directions laid out in the strategic plan. Our staff members have embarked on the challenging yet rewarding process of forging research and development links across divisions, programs, and institutions. They are eager to work as closely as possible with the university community.

Updates on the strategic planning process, including details on each of the new NCAR initiatives, are being posted at the Web site below. I encourage you to explore the materials available online and to consider how your interests might coincide with the new directions NCAR is taking.


On the Web:
NCAR Strategic Plan

Topic areas and goals for NCAR’s large-scale initiatives

The NCAR Biogeosciences Initiative
• Understand the role of biological processes in the dynamics, chemistry, and evolution of the climate system on time scales from days to millennia
• Identify and understand the processes in the physical climate system that most strongly affect the functioning of biological systems
• Understand the interactions of human society and biogeoscience dynamics at multiple scales and analyze their implications for assessments, policy decisions, environmental management, and education

The Wildland Fire Collaboratory
• Create a highly interactive international forum to exchange information on research and development associated with wildland fire
• Assess related R&D priorities and build advocacy for them
• Accelerate the transfer of technology from research to operational communities

Advancing the Science of Weather and Climate Impact Assessment
• Improve the characterization of uncertainty in impact assessment science
• Integrate atmospheric science, statistics, and social science to improve understanding of impacts of and vulnerability to extreme climate and weather events
• Investigate the interactions among climate and human health factors, with a focus on attributing impacts to climate perturbations

The NCAR Data Assimilation Initiative
• Create a community that will produce leading-edge research on data assimilation, focus disparate NCAR efforts, and support operational efforts within and beyond NCAR
• Develop a software environment for data assimilation research and evaluation—the Data Assimilation Research Testbed—along with software for use in undergraduate and graduate education
• Provide a mechanism for collaboration with selected university and government partners and an infrastructure for communicating research and application advances to a broad community

The Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model
• Develop a comprehensive numerical model spanning the range of altitude from Earth’s surface to the thermosphere
• Using this model, investigate stratosphere-troposphere coupling, the effects of solar variability on the middle and upper atmosphere, and physical and chemical processes in and near the mesopause

Fundamental Issues in Geophysical Turbulence
• Study surface wave–air interaction near the coast, land-air interactions over heterogeneous surfaces, and turbulent structures in the entrainment zone at the top of marine stratocumulus clouds
• Develop a program of turbulence modeling, observation, and validation
• Develop a three-dimensional turbulence code to model incompressible, homogeneous fluid behavior using state-of-the-art numerical techniques

The Water Cycle across Scales
• Understand how water vapor, precipitation, and land-surface hydrology interact across scales to define the hydrological cycle
• Using this information, improve both large- and small-scale weather prediction and climate models

Outreach and Education
• Hold inaugural NCAR workshops in the summer of 2002 on undergraduate leadership and on geoscience education in climate and global change (see report in next issue of the UCAR Quarterly).
• Continue (and augment where appropriate) postdoctoral and graduate fellowship programs. Develop an early-career faculty fellowship program
• Implement a new Web site for outreach and education
• Develop a bidirectional sabbatical program (university visits to and from NCAR)
• Develop new science exhibits and displays at NCAR

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Mon June 10 16:42:17 MST 2002