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Winter 2001

OU signs $10.6 million alliance with energy firm

by Bob Henson

In the largest partnership to date between a private corporation and an academic meteorology program, the University of Oklahoma has embarked on a five-year alliance with Williams Energy Marketing and Trading, a Tulsa-based distributor and risk manager for natural gas and other energy supplies. The $10.6 million agreement funds basic and applied research in weather and climate science, graduate and undergraduate fellowships, research scientist and postdoctoral positions, a new multiprocessor supercomputer, enhancements to an academic computer laboratory, and an endowed chair.

Under the agreement,

  • A grant of $8.1 million over five years will fund research at OU's Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms, including the acquisition of a supercomputer. This machine is expected to have a peak capacity of approximately one-half teraflop (or one-half trillion calculations per second).

  • A grant of $1.6 million will fund regional climate research at the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. The grant will be used to implement the Max Planck Institute's ECHAM5 (European Centre–Hamburg) climate model and to fund research scientists as well as student positions at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

  • A one-time $500,000 gift will create the Williams Endowed Chair in the OU School of Meteorology. Matching support by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education is expected to bring the total endowment to $1 million. The search is now under way for an internationally recognized scientist with a background in atmospheric or climate science, decision science, economics, policy making, or closely related areas.

  • A grant of $100,000 will go to the School of Meteorology to enhance its student computer laboratories. The university is providing a matching grant of $42,000.

  • A gift of $90,000 over two years is supporting three Williams fellows within the master's-degree track in professional meteorology, starting in the fall of 2001. This special degree program is geared toward individuals seeking positions with private or government entities that have an emphasis on service provision. The fellows may be offered summer internships at Williams, and research problems (the equivalent of theses in this non-thesis program) will be chosen jointly with the company. There is no obligation for Williams to hire the fellows or for the fellows to work for the company after graduation.

  • A one-time gift of $100,000 will go to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey for general use.

    How it happened

    Finalized in July 2001, the OU-Williams alliance took shape over two years of discussions. In 1998, the Market Analysis Group at Williams began hiring OU meteorology graduates who had been mentored by OU professors Peter Lamb and Michael Richman. "This turned out to be a valuable and visionary move for Williams. These former students have become a strong testimonial to the quality of the OU meteorology program," says professor of meteorology Kelvin Droegemeier. The company's interest in a more formalized relationship was piqued after Williams executives toured the OU campus in December 1999.

    According to Williams president Keith Bailey, "This is a partnership between business and higher education where both parties benefit. All too often research and advancements underwritten by business donations sit on the shelf gathering dust. The OU weather research will move at the speed of business to Williams, where our traders and originators will be able to significantly reduce the risk associated with deals [on time frames] from a moment's notice to more than 15 years in the future."

    Navigating the ethics

    University-based knowledge is traditionally open to all, whereas private companies are loath to reveal trade secrets. How this inevitable conflict is handled in the OU-Williams alliance may serve as a bellwether for similar teamings elsewhere. According to Droegemeier, the intellectual property produced through Williams funding will be owned by OU but licensed in various ways to Williams. "We plan to protect Williams' investment without compromising our academic freedom, such as the need to publish in the open literature. They stay a private company, and we stay a public institution that promotes open discourse and a free exchange of information. No restrictions are placed on publications, including dissertations and theses, though of course we are careful to not disclose within them information that is proprietary to Williams. Furthermore, all software developed under the Williams project may be used in nonprofit research and education, which of course benefits the entire community."

    How might the influx of private support for master's-level students shift the composition of graduate programs? At OU, Droegemeier notes that, while the total number of graduate students has doubled and undergraduate enrollment has quadrupled over the past 15 years, the ratio of master's- to doctoral-level students has held roughly constant at two-to- one. "It's possible that we might have as many as 8 to 12 fellows [in the professional meteorology program] at any point in time, but probably not more, simply because of the additional work needed to facilitate their activities and the desire to maintain very high quality. Given that we don't plan to add a significant number of faculty, I don't see [the ratio] changing too much."

    Droegemeier adds that the process of applying to the program has features much like entrance into medical school. "We interview each candidate carefully, looking for special qualities and capabilities that go beyond an ability simply to perform academically at the master's level. It's highly competitive."

    Droegemeier sees the OU-Williams alliance as part of what he calls the changing landscape of meteorology. "The discipline of meteorology is threefold: academia, private industry, and the federal government, which includes operational centers, research laboratories, and the military. The future will see a much greater role played by the private sector, both in terms of employment as well as technology development, and will require much closer linkages among all groups. Most important, everyone in the community is going to need a better understanding of each other's purpose, interests, needs, and constraints."

    On the Web:
    OU School of Meteorology
    NAS Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services

    The new NAS panel on public-private issues

    A long-standing debate on the respective roles of the National Weather Service and private meteorologists has now moved into the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services held its first two meetings in Washington, D.C., on 29 August and 5 November. The group will "examine the roles of the public, private, and academic sectors in providing weather and climate services

    and . . .identify opportunities for and barriers to improving such services." The committee has put a variety of presentations and supporting materials on line (see On the Web) and invites community input through its Web site. They will next assemble at the AMS Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida, for a town hall session open to all conference attendees during the lunch hour on Wednesday, 17 January.

    Committee members

    John Armstrong (chair), IBM (retired)
    Richard Anthes (vice-chair), UCAR
    William Arms, Cornell University
    William Easterling III, Pennsylvania State University
    Ellen Gordon, Iowa Emergency Management Division
    Richard Greenfield, American Meteorological Society
    William Hoover, consultant
    Jessica Litman, Wayne State University
    Gordon McBean, University of Western Ontario
    Ravi Nathan, Aquila
    Henry Perritt Jr., Chicago-Kent College of Law
    Roger Pielke Jr., University of Colorado
    Maria Pirone, Weather Services International
    Roy Radner, New York University
    Robert Ryan, WRC-TV, Washington, D.C.
    Karen Sollins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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    UCAR > Communications > UCAR Quarterly > Winter 2001 Search

    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
    Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
    Last revised: Thu Dec 20 16:42:17 MST 2001