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May 2002

A talk with Peter Backlund

Peter Backlund joined NCAR last December as the director of research relations. In this newly created position, he focuses on forming strategic partnerships with public and private organizations that are interested in NCAR’s research. A former Washington staffer in the Executive Office of the President, he has considerable expertise in both public policy and science. To learn more about Peter and his new position, SN Monthly recently spoke with him in his ML office. • David Hosansky

SN: Why did NCAR create this new position?
Peter: The idea is to have someone who can focus on strengthening NCAR’s relationships with existing sponsors and building relationships with potential new partners. Those new partners could be everyone from government agencies to decision makers in the public and private sectors who might be interested in our work and our results. In this position, I can build on a lot of the strategic planning activities that NCAR has initiated, taking all these new ideas and new projects and helping to present them to people who are outside the traditional community of NCAR collaborators.

Peter Backlund is the new NCAR director of research relations. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

SN: How will this benefit the institution?
Peter: Part of the idea is to raise NCAR’s profile and to give it some of the recognition that it deserves. The strategic plan that’s been developed offers an incredible menu of things that NCAR could do. Doing every single thing in the plan would require significant increases in our budget. I think that having a dialogue with interested parties about the plan and the ideas in there could help us identify which opportunities to pursue in the near term. It could help us make choices about what we’re actually going to do.

There’s not another lab, as near as I can tell, quite like NCAR anywhere else in the world, much less in the United States. It’s a very productive scientific institution. My goal is to help expose it to a wider range of people. I also am a firm believer that science benefits from hearing from potential customers and clients of scientific information. And I think it’s helpful for science to be informed by a somewhat broader societal perspective.

SN: What sort of potential collaborators are we talking about?
Peter: "Well, identifying productive collaborations is going to take a lot of work, but I can give you a couple of examples of the kinds of organizations that we might develop new relationships with.
There’s a whole set of agencies in the U.S. Global Change Research Program that don’t provide much funding to NCAR right now. Yet NCAR’s work could be of substantial interest to them. I’m thinking of agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency—which does fund some of the work here at NCAR, but not very much—and, possibly, the U.S. Geological Survey. I think of these agencies as potential partners for us, especially with some of the new initiatives that are being developed here.

An example, relevant to USDA, is that we have been developing an exciting wildfire initiative. The people working on this initiative here are topnotch. They’ve learned a lot by going out and talking to people in the field about what their needs are in managing and mitigating the impact of wildfires and looking at how our science matches up with that. I think I can help them take the dialogue that they’ve already developed very extensively at the grassroots level and bring that up to a higher level at agencies like USDA and others that would benefit from this research. I’m also interested in showcasing this kind of effective collaboration to agencies that are concerned with the overall U.S. science policy and budgets, like the Office of Science and Technology Policy—where I worked before joining NCAR—and the Office of Management and Budget.

Then there’s a whole suite of people who are outside the science community, yet are very interested in climate and weather science because it is relevant to decision making and policy development. I’m thinking of people at White House offices such as the Council on Environmental Quality and the Council of Economic Advisors. I think there’s also a lot of interest in the business community in both weather and climate research. For instance, the insurance industry is concerned about the possible financial impacts of climate change. They are also interested in how improved prediction can help mitigate the impact of severe weather events. The oil and gas and construction industries are also concerned about how climate change might affect their businesses. All of these sectors are represented on our NCAR Advisory Council, and we’re hoping to use the council as a means of learning more about the information needs of private sector decision makers.

SN: What’s your scientific and public policy background?
Peter: I spent the last seven years working in the National Science and Technology Council and the Environment Division of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, providing staff support and advice to the president’s science advisor and other senior officials. My responsibilities included climate change; coordination of federal environmental research and development plans, programs, and budgets; Earth observations; land-use and land-cover change; and a variety of other issues. Before that, I was at NASA, where I was the chief of staff for the Mission to Planet Earth at NASA headquarters.

SN: Is your academic background primarily in the sciences?
Peter: My background is more in social sciences and liberal arts than hard science. My undergraduate degree, from the University of New Mexico, is actually in history, and my graduate degree from George Washington University is in science, technology, and public policy. I spent a lot of time studying the role of science and technology in history, as well as the role of the federal government in funding and stimulating science and technology and the use of science and technology in government programs.

If I had to summarize my career, I’d say that I’ve generally been the nonscientific, nontechnical person in technical organizations, helping them to communicate their goals and objectives to the nonscientific world. Another way of putting it is that I’ve spent my whole career at the interface of science and policy. It’s a lot of fun.

SN: What brought you to NCAR?
Peter: There were three factors. One of them was that I just felt like it was time for a change in my career in general. I’d spent most of my time working at the headquarters level of an agency, and then above all the agencies trying to coordinate what they do. That’s very important work, but it’s a bit abstract. I was interested in making a change into something that was more on the implementation side of things. Another factor was simply wanting to change from a frenzied work environment to one that was merely demanding. I was just tired of working until nine o’clock or later almost every night. I’m a workaholic person, but that gets old, even for a workaholic. A final factor in my change was that I had been in the East for a long time, but I grew up in the West, in Albuquerque. I wanted to be able to come back west and raise my daughter out here. [Peter moved here with his wife, Roberta, and their daughter, Zola, who turns eight this month.]

SN: How have you been spending your time at NCAR?
Peter: Eventually, I’ll travel quite a bit, talking to people about what we do. But so far I’ve been really trying to just immerse myself in NCAR and learn everything that I can about it. Before I got this job, I knew a lot about a little bit of NCAR. But there was a lot of NCAR that I knew very little about. I really didn’t have any idea how much practical research we did, such as a lot of the activities in RAP that go from basic research to more applied research.

SN: What do you like about working here?
Peter: I like everything about NCAR. I literally haven’t had a cross word with anybody about anything. It’s very collegial.
We’re pretty busy up here and I’ve got a lot on my plate. But there’s a little bit more time for actual reflection here; I feel like I have more time to try and get things right. I guess the best way to contrast that with my previous existence is that I was living in a world of one-minute, fifteen-minute, one-hour, and one-day deadlines. And there just really isn’t a whole lot of the fifteen-minute deadline stuff here, which is nice.

SN: Is there a particular message that you’d like to get out to staff?
Peter: I’m doing my best to go around and talk to all the division directors and to some of the senior scientists. And I’ve talked to a good subset of the initiative leaders. But I guess one message that I’d like to get across is that I am here to, in some sense, provide service and help people if they have problems in Washington, D.C., or if they see opportunities for collaborations.
I’m here to help out. I place a high priority on being approached by people, and I’d like staff to feel like they can e-mail me and seek my assistance on things.


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Edited by David Hosansky, hosansky@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Carlye Calvin
Last revised: Tues May 28 17:08:40 MST 2001