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July 2000
It Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series. In this year's installments, Diane commemorates the 40th anniversary of UCAR and NCAR by focusing on key periods in our history.

Under scrutiny: The JEC years

It would be difficult to examine NCAR's second decade of existence without paying close attention to the activities and conclusions of the Joint Evaluation Committee. Convened in 1972, when NCAR was twelve years old, the six members of the JEC were elected by UCAR and NSF to review the research programs, policies, and personnel management of the laboratory during a time of "vast changes in national perspectives toward science." This was the first time a joint review of the lab had ever been carried out, reflecting the new climate for research. The JEC summarized its findings in a 70-page preliminary report published late that year, engendering profound structural and managerial changes at NCAR.

In a preface to the report, the authors stated that "times have changed, the state of science has advanced . . . [and] our resources are allocated on different priorities than in science's 'golden years.' " Those years were defined by the committee as the period 1958—68, roughly coinciding with the early U. S. space program and the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and ending during one of the more politically turbulent years of the 20th century. By the mid to late 1960s, scientific research dollars were harder to obtain and many American enterprises were being called into question. According to Milton Lomask, author of the 1976 book A Minor Miracle: An Informal History of the National Science Foundation, a "public disenchantment with science" had materialized in the United States, replacing a 1950s view of scientists as "popular folks," even "latter-day miracle workers."

With concern about a glut of science Ph.D.s in a difficult job market, support grew in Washington to de-emphasize NSF spending on "the production of new scientists" as well as to overhaul NSF's other funding priorities. Congress voted to broaden NSF's mission to include a new focus on applied research and more support for the social sciences, among other things. By the end of the 1960s, NSF was operating under a second charter, revised from its original mission established in 1950. A new directorate within NSF, Research Applied to National Needs (RANN), was developed to promote "directed research" programs to study and help solve specific, large-scale national problems. At NCAR, one such RANN- sponsored program, the National Hail Research Experiment (NHRE), was already in operation. (See the June 1999 issue of the Staff Notes Monthly). In 1972, RANN was one of four NSF directorates that provided funding for NCAR programs.

Early in its report, the JEC made it clear that the "quality of the NCAR scientific program was never the focal point of our inquiries." Program quality would be addressed only as "an expression of management actions." Further, as a product of the "collaboration between the academic community and NSF," NCAR was noted to be "one of the truly great achievements of the post-Sputnik era in American science." Nonetheless, the JEC believed there was "ample room for improvement." The report would "dwell on current needs," not "past acheivements."

The first section critiqued the management of NCAR from several angles, including the structure of management itself as well as "managerial attitudes." In those years, most of NCAR's scientific research, excluding solar physics, took place within one large division, the Laboratory for Atmospheric Science, or LAS. (For some reason, HAO was not part of this review.) In addition, the authors looked at NCAR's Facilities Laboratory, which included computing, scientific ballooning (in Palestine, Texas), aviation, and field observing. Several common threads run through the JEC findings about management, notably a lack of communication and coordination between levels of management; a need for integration between programs and facilities, particularly in large projects; a sense that scientists in different disciplines were working independently of each other and of university scientists; and a need for systematic and formal approaches to appointments and reviews.

A second section of the report reiterated the new national paradigm for scientific research, "Science in the Service of Society." The authors discussed how NCAR's programs could fit this paradigm, combining core (i.e., basic) research with "key projects," defined as "major program[s] too large for a single university" and "coherent by virtue of an objective or theme." The JEC felt that the "flight to directed research" would continue for some time and that NCAR scientists were behind their university peers in recognizing this fact. They decried what might be commonly viewed as the "dichotomy" of core research and key projects, providing a few guidelines for integrating the two concepts.

The report concluded with a look at UCAR's role in the atmospheric sciences and a few suggestions for the NSF. UCAR was urged to take a more forceful role in the management of NCAR. At the same time, the JEC advised UCAR, as an independent corporation, to broaden its mission beyond simple management of the laboratory, and explore ways to "integrate . . . the NCAR research program with the Nation's academic atmospheric science research program."

Upon release of the JEC report, reaction at NCAR and UCAR was swift. Divisional committees were quickly elected to study the report and hammer out possible solutions to issues involving organization, personnel policies, appointments, and facilities and research support. Coincidental with the release of the JEC report, staff was informed about a devastating budget shortfall of $1 million (roughly 5% of the annual budget) for the rest of FY 1973 and FY 1974, coupled with a less- than-rosy outlook for FY75. NCAR director John Firor, joined by UCAR president Walt Roberts, presided over regular brown-bag discussion groups for all staff in the lobby of the Mesa Lab. Beginning in December 1972, and continuing through 1973, the writers of Staff Notes Monthly (then a weekly publication) produced highly detailed progress reports on these brown-bag sessions.

In a 1990 oral history interview, John Firor (then director of the Advanced Study Program) reflected on the legacy of the JEC period. Walt Roberts, NCAR's first director and the lab's guiding light for many years, eventually stepped down as UCAR president. A certain formalism came to replace the earlier, more laissez-faire style of management. LAS, the "single meteorological laboratory," was split into smaller units presaging NCAR's current divisional organization. NCAR systematized its scientific appointment process, and modeled it closely on university practices. An external scientific advisory committee was appointed to determine research priorities and direction. And UCAR, until then "just" the parent of NCAR, became free to branch out into other enterprises, the subject of our next look at our institutional history: UCAR in the 1980's.

• Diane Rabson


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Wed Jul 19 13:56:38 MDT 2000