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Winter 1999

Common concerns: Messages from the UCAR Forum

In honor of the millennium and of NCAR's 40th birthday, UCAR members' representatives and others attending the October UCAR meetings came together to define, clarify, and strategize about some of the atmospheric sciences' weightiest challenges for the next decade. Each of the UCAR Forum participants chose one of four sessions: protecting life and property, maintaining environmental quality, enhancing economic vitality, and strengthening fundamental understanding. These areas were pinpointed as the field's most important missions in The Atmospheric Sciences Entering the Twenty-First Century, a report by the National Academy of Sciences' Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC). The participants in the forum--who came from large and small colleges and universities, federal agencies, and UCAR, with backgrounds ranging from meteorology to engineering, social science, and administration--were asked to consider how the universities and UCAR/NCAR should evolve to meet the challenges of the coming years.

In the wide-ranging, two-hour discussions, some themes were echoed in most or all groups. This report summarizes those common issues, with quotes from all four sessions. Considering the diversity of the participants, it's probably correct to say that the concerns described here are on the minds of most educators and researchers in the atmospheric sciences today.



Perhaps the most universal concern was what changes in infrastructure would most help the atmospheric sciences to increase basic knowledge and serve the common good. Many participants thought that NSF should do more, perhaps through funding, toward breaking down disciplinary barriers. The opposite point of view was also widely held: it's the community's responsibility to guide NSF and the other agencies. Bill Gutowski (Iowa State University) pointed out that NSF is not a mission agency, so it's not meant to set research directions. As Chris Bretherton (University of Washington) put it, "We [the community] must articulate the important science issues that we need to work on."

Both of these options have down sides. NCAR senior scientist Peter Gilman noted the pitfalls that can occur when politics leads the scientific process and money becomes "bureaucrat driven." For example, he says, astronomers have more than enough funding for building telescopes, but there's very little money available for using them. Ken Demerjian (State University of New York at Albany) pointed out that community goal-setting could be short-sighted. "We have a history of bringing scientists together to solve fundamental problems, not interdisciplinary problems."

Michael Knölker (NCAR) advocated a third position: that research directions should be solely interest-driven. History is full of examples, he said, of breakthroughs that came about because a single researcher bucked the scientific establishment's agenda. Knölker's fellow NCAR division director Maurice Blackmon played devil's advocate, noting the advances in physics that grew from the federally driven Manhattan Project.

Some recent trends in the atmospheric sciences, such as the growth of private-sector meteorology, may not be easily assimilated within the existing agency structure, especially in agencies that were created with highly specific missions. Another general theme was the need to break down the walls between the universities, the agencies, and the private sector.

Interdisciplinary research

Closely tied to the issue of infrastructure is the question of who is responsible for seeing that interdisciplinary research has as good a chance to be funded as single-discipline projects. According to John Merrill (University of Rhode Island), "NSF has failed to structure the funding of interdisciplinary projects." According to Gutowski, it's the community's fault; "We give high marks to neat, disciplinary proposals."

The participants agreed that both NSF's divisional structure and the universities' departmental organization get in the way of building interdisciplinary collaborations. Some suggested that university organizational structures need to be revamped. Dennis Thomson (Pennsylvania State University) offered a "modest proposal" that 5-10% of university department funds could be allocated into new areas to get faculty out of the disciplinary mode. Other faculty pointed out, however, that staff outside of traditional disciplines may have problems getting promotions and tenure.

Several scientists felt that successful interdisciplinary research is already growing from the community's perception of need, mentioning such projects as TOGA (Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere) and SHEBA (Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean). Linda Mearns (NCAR) noted, however, that all these examples were interdisciplinary mainly within the physical sciences. Wider interdisciplinary research may need different structures.


Do the geosciences attract and keep the best and brightest students? Richard Somerville (Scripps Institution of Oceanography) believed the answer is no. He thought classes all too often appear to have no relevance to students who come into the environmental field wanting to "save the world." In a different session, Thomson voiced a similar concern: "Our textbooks are not describing real problems. We need to articulate our science in real-world terms." A third participant said that students today work on exciting interdisciplinary problems in elementary and high school that may get them interested in science, but when they reach college, the undergraduate programs are entirely disciplinary based.

Some contributors thought that today's graduate students are not as talented as those of a decade ago; others disagreed. Fred Carr (University of Oklahoma) suggested that UCAR could get some actual data on this question by conducting a survey of student quality.

There are several reasons that even successful students may leave the atmospheric and related sciences. Number one, some participants think, is money. Students can earn more in fields like computer science, said Peter Ray (Florida State University). But others thought students leave the field because they're disillusioned with it--perhaps discouraged by the time and effort required or by the status of science. As Karyn Sawyer (UCAR) pointed out, intellectual success is not valued in our society. Another problem, according to Al Cooper (NCAR), is that some of today's postdoctoral fellows are poorly treated, for example, by being set to work on a more senior scientist's research rather than allowed to do their own.

Instrumentation and data

Melanie Wetzel (Desert Research Institute) articulated a widespread concern about instrumentation: students are not learning the science that leads to instrumentation development, and few universities now have facilities to develop instruments, due to financial concerns and other factors. Instrumentation doesn't fit into the tenure model: It may take years of investment, and there may be only one paper published from all that effort. Also, when a university is considering how to allocate meager resources, it's significant that a technician working on an atmospheric-research instrument will be supporting only a few students and faculty, whereas a computer technician can support a wider group.

Bretherton pointed out, "There's no planning going on for what instrumentation we need most." Carr noted that the BASC report had as its two main imperatives the development and the optimal use of new observing systems, but efforts to address these issues are severely underfunded. Wetzel added that there's a great need for new instrumentation that meets the needs of more than one discipline.

Like the instruments, data also need to become more interdisciplinary. The consensus was that it's up to scientists to take responsibility for making their data more accessible to others, especially those outside their field. The problem with that, according to NCAR's Bernie O'Lear, is metadata, which grows with each additional discipline that uses the data, adding to the size of the data set. It's already predicted that the cost of data storage will outstrip the cost of computing in three years if current archive rates continue, so this is a nontrivial issue.


At one point or another, participants advocated building partnerships between the research community and the private sector, the universities and the agencies, the national centers and Congress--almost every possible permutation of the constituencies that compose or influence the atmospheric sciences. Perhaps we should survey our clients and users about how they understand and use knowledge from the atmospheric sciences, suggested one scientist. Others recommended cross-cutting conferences, such as one that Kelvin Droegemeier (University of Oklahoma) is organizing for all stakeholders on last May's Oklahoma tornadoes. Dick Greenfield (American Meteorological Society) recommended that scientists "get dialogues going" on their own.

The next steps

For UCAR, the forum was the first step in a year-long process of thinking and planning about these issues. The comments from the forum will be used in designing a community survey to explore how UCAR can better serve the universities. Please add your voice to those heard at the forum.

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Apr 4 15:11:41 MDT 2000