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Barron arrives at NCAR

The center’s new director returns to his early-career roots

by Bob Henson

eric barron

Eric Barron. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

When Eric Barron was a graduate student at NCAR, helping put the research world’s first Cray supercomputer through its paces, the idea of heading up the center three decades later didn’t cross his mind. “I would have really thought that was unlikely,” he says.

Yet Barron became a leader early in his career. He blended his backgrounds in geology and oceanography with climate science that he picked up at NCAR to become one of the nation’s first paleoclimatologists to apply climate models to Earth history. After rising through the ranks of academia—including a long tenure at Pennsylvania State University—Barron is back in Boulder. On 1 July he became the ninth director in NCAR’s 48-year history. He succeeds Tim Killeen, who is now the assistant director of geosciences for NSF.

Barron joins NCAR after two years as dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. There, he oversaw a $54 million budget and more than 500 undergraduate and graduate students. Barron is also a prolific researcher, serving as author or coauthor on more than 120 peer-reviewed papers in geology, oceanography, and climate. He has chaired many committees and panels for NSF, NASA, and the National Research Council. And he’s kept involved with UCAR and NCAR over the years, including serving as a UCAR trustee from 2002 into this year.

“This was a very competitive search, and in fact any of the final candidates would have made a fine NCAR director,” said UCAR president Rick Anthes on announcing the appointment. Anthes cited Barron’s diverse research interests and his familiarity with UCAR and NCAR, as well as his experience in setting budgets and priorities.

NCAR’s financial situation is high on the minds of many staff and collaborators. The center’s core funding after inflation has dropped in each of the last four years. Managers have had to carve out ongoing support for major community acquisitions, such as enhanced supercomputers and the new Gulfstream-V jet. NCAR has lost more than 100 staff since fiscal year 2004 through layoffs and attrition, and several programs have been shut down.

A new deputy: Maura Hagan

maura hagan

Maura Hagan. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Space physicist Maura Hagan, who oversees the NCAR Advanced Study Program (ASP), took on another role on 8 August—deputy director of NCAR. Hagan will continue to lead ASP, whose best-known activity is its long-running series of two-year postdoctoral appointments.

By combining the directorship of ASP with this job, notes incoming NCAR director Eric Barron, the center will “save considerable administrative costs, allowing us to focus more of NCAR’s tight resources on our scientific mission.”

Hagan joined NCAR as a visiting scientist in 1990 and was named a senior scientist in 2003 and ASP director in 2005. Her research at NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory has focused on the physics of the middle and upper atmosphere, particularly atmospheric tides and the roles they play.

“Maura is well respected within NCAR and by the external community,” Barron adds. “Her experience on the NCAR Director’s Committee gives her broad insight into the breadth of NCAR’s activities and as ASP director she is acutely aware of the importance of early career scientists, science education, diversity, and broad community outreach for our future. All of these qualities ensure effective leadership of NCAR.”

Senior scientist Larry Winter, who served as deputy director for five years, will move to NCAR’s Institute for Mathematics Applied to Geosciences, where he’ll pursue research in his long-time specialties of hydrology and applied mathematics.

UCAR Quarterly editor Bob Henson sat down with Barron not long after his arrival to learn more about how he envisions his new role, the opportunities and challenges NCAR faces, and the center’s relationship to university researchers.

How do you think the university community sees NCAR these days?

We learn a great deal about this perspective from community reviews, and the recent recompetition for the management of NCAR is a great example. Overall the sense of the community is that NCAR is an invaluable asset, but it depends on what you talk to people about. It’s rare to find people who understand the scope and breadth and the many different contributions of NCAR. People who are tightly connected to our facilities and our models tend to speak very favorably about NCAR. My belief is that we can do better in communicating the scope of our contributions and collaborations, and we can do better in listening to our university partners.

Do you have any thoughts on how NCAR balances its roles as a facilitator of university research and a conductor of research itself?

There is, and always will be, a sensitivity in terms of the degree to which NCAR provides competition with universities. That’s something that always has to be managed and looked at. At the same time, we know that these two roles—facilitator and researcher—go hand in hand. We could not lead the development of community models without having exceptional individuals on our staff who are pushing the forefront of model development and application. At the same time, the true strength of our efforts is that we not only have community models, but we also have a community psychology, or sociology, that brings many people into the process of developing and improving the models.

What qualities do you bring to the role of NCAR director?

A variety of things. It doesn’t hurt to have a little history—to understand what it means to be a graduate student at NCAR, postdoc, ladder scientist, external participant, and trustee. I have a fair amount of managerial experience as dean at two different large universities in rather different programs. Certainly it helps to have some sense of budgets and promotion, and all those things that make any kind of institution run. And I’m a very committed person. That makes a difference.

How do you see NCAR’s budgetary future?

For quite some time we’ve been in a tough budget climate across the sciences. The level of support is nowhere near what it should be. I think we’re going to come out of that. It may take a little time, but there’s a whole side of economic development to this nation and world that’s tied to weather and climate information. This presents an extraordinary opportunity, and we have to be prepared.

How would you characterize your leadership style?

I really like to talk to people, get advice, and have interactions. I promote this even though in many cases I might hear things that I can’t do or can’t agree with. I think that no one is so wise that they can just merrily go off and believe that they know all the answers. But at the same time, I know I have to make decisions and I’m not afraid to make them.

A second element of my leadership style is that I like to think strategically. An awful lot of institutions around the world have strategic plans that aren’t strategic. I think a strategic plan should be actionable, so that what you’re looking at takes you somewhere. It makes a big difference to people when they sense what the future is and know what their leadership is working toward.

Do you foresee an update of NCAR’s strategic plan?

There has to be one. That’s not a critique of the current plan, but a lot of things are different already, and a lot of opportunities will emerge over the next couple of years. We need to be ready for those, and it’s a good time to do that when leadership changes. Also, NSF is expecting a new plan from us. And, importantly, you want a new leader to be educated in what’s going on and committed to a path that they know will fit the institution. Strategic planning is a really good way to accomplish both of those things simultaneously.

Milestones in Eric Barron’s career

The capsule version:

  • Bachelor’s degree in geology, Florida State University, 1973
  • Master’s degree in oceanography, University of Miami, 1976
  • Doctoral degree in oceanography, University of Miami, 1980
  • Summer visitor and fellowship holder, NCAR, 1976–80
  • Postdoctoral researcher and scientist I and II, NCAR, 1980–85
  • Associate professor, University of Miami, 1985–86
  • Director, Earth System Science Center, and associate professor of geosciences, Pennsylvania State University (PSU), 1986–89
  • Professor of geosciences, PSU, 1989–2006
  • Director, Environment Institute, PSU, 1998–2003
  • Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, PSU, 2002–06
  • Dean, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin, 2006–08

Armed with a red pencil: Barron has served on the editorial boards of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology; Geology; Geotimes; Consequences; and Global Change Encyclopedia. He spent eight years as editor of Global and Planetary Change and six as associate editor of Journal of Climate.

Serving UCAR: After his departure from NCAR in 1985, Barron remained connected with the institution in a number of ways. He reviewed parts of NCAR while on the Scientific Programs Evaluation Committee and chaired the first allocation panel for the center’s Climate Simulation Laboratory. Barron joined the UCAR Board of Trustees in 2002 and chaired the board from January to May of this year. He resigned his trustee post after being hired as NCAR’s new director. (Rana Fine, of the University of Miami, is the board’s new chair.)

Getting on Cray’s good side: In 1976, when Barron was in graduate school, one of his advisors at Miami encouraged him to apply for an NCAR fellowship on vector processing in atmospheric science. It was sponsored by Seymour Cray’s firm, which was about to install the first production version of its CRAY-1 supercomputer at NCAR’s Mesa Lab. “They’re not going to take a crazy geologist,” Barron told himself, only to find that he was one of the successful applicants. After he arrived in Boulder, he finally got up the nerve to ask how it was that he got so lucky: “The person in charge was Jeanne Adams, who said to me, ‘Cray told us to accept one oddball, and you were it.’ I might have been the only oddball who applied.”

 

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