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February 2005

An eye on Washington

The Office of Government Affairs is spreading the word on Capitol Hill about the importance of funding for atmospheric research. But it’s facing a stiff headwind in the form of tight federal budgets.

Laura Curtis (left), Cindy Schmidt, and Gloria Kelly of OGA

Like so many of the organization’s scientists, Cindy Schmidt spends much of her working time examining numbers. In her case, however, a lot of the numbers are preceded by dollar signs, and they’re not adding up to her liking.

Cindy, as director of the UCAR Office of Government Affairs (OGA), focuses on educating members of Congress about the importance of atmospheric science. She also tries to maximize the institution’s funding.

That’s no easy task these days. Because of tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and the federal deficit, Cindy predicts that budgets for science are likely to be tight for a while. “I think we are in for a number of very difficult years,” she says.

NCAR’s primary sponsor, NSF, took a slight budget cut this fiscal year, and NCAR itself announced several layoffs this month. “We have all tried our best to protect jobs and preserve the highest priority components of our programs – but there is just no getting away from the negative effects of this budget situation,” NCAR director Tim Killeen explained in an all-staff email. He added that no additional cuts are expected this fiscal year. “The budget constraints in no way reflect negatively on the expertise or productivity of our staff at NCAR,” he emphasized.

In the OGA offices in FL 4, Cindy works with two colleagues—government affairs specialist Laura Curtis and office manager Gloria Kelly—on strategies to boost funding for NCAR, UCAR, and the UCAR community. They hold briefings on Capitol Hill about priorities in the atmospheric sciences, prepare testimony for congressional hearings, work with allies in the scientific community, and employ a veteran Washington lobbying firm, Lewis-Burke Associates.

OGA also recently redesigned its Web site, which contains a wealth of information about the federal funding situation (see On the Web, below). Readers can find budget information about NSF and other science agencies, obtain legislative updates about relevant science issues, read testimony, and learn more about congressional procedures.

OGA’s efforts are seen as vital for the organization to remain visible in Washington. “It’s essential that we explain the importance of our science,” Tim explains. “We need to have a voice.”

Funding challenges

UCAR and NCAR enjoy an enviable physical setting in Boulder, but their setting in the appropriations process is another matter.

Funding sources, in addition to NSF, include NASA, NOAA, the energy and defense departments, and the Federal Aviation Administration. The funding can be vulnerable because it falls in the discretionary portion of the budget. That’s the area most targeted when policy makers need to cut spending, instead of entitlement programs such as Medicare.

As Congress appropriates limited science dollars, NSF also may find itself competing with NASA. The space agency is trying to obtain money for a White House priority: sending astronauts to the Moon and ultimately to Mars.

“The Moon-Mars project is putting pressure on other priorities,” explains Cindy, who goes to Washington about 10 times a year.

Still, she says, policy makers appreciate the contributions of the atmospheric sciences, and majorities in both political parties would like to increase funding for NSF if they could find the money. Just four years ago, President Bush signed a bill authorizing a doubling in funding for NSF, contingent on available money.

“Many members of Congress understand the importance of science,” Cindy says. “I really do think if we were in a time of plenty, science would be a higher priority than it is now.”

Indeed, Tim is working closely with OGA to inform agencies and lawmakers of the vitality and importance of the NCAR program. He notes that NCAR has weathered difficult budget times before, such as in the early 1990s.

“I think there is an inherent bipartisan support for science that will be a countervailing force when it comes to budget cuts,” he says. “There will be some painful decisions this year, no doubt about it. But we’re going to maintain our standards of excellence.”

Societal benefits

Each year Cindy, Laura, and Gloria plan several briefings on Capitol Hill on climate and weather topics. Scientists from NCAR and the community stress how research results are helping to save lives, strengthen the economy, and enhance homeland security. Briefing speakers are recruited from all sectors of the community.

Scientists may describe the societal importance of such products as the Community Climate System Model (CCSM), which researchers use to study climate change, and the Weather Forecasting and Research (WRF) model, which will generate highly detailed forecasts and improve our understanding of mesoscale weather. Discussions with policy makers cover a range of atmospheric science topics, from the impacts of the Sun on space weather to the need for faster supercomputers.

OGA staffers make sure to work with UCAR’s member universities on particular funding issues. As Cindy points out, NCAR has special access to just the Colorado delegation, whereas the university community has ties to most members of Congress. Through UCAR member representatives, the community makes contact with congressional members with influence over science funding and policy, such as Senators Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

“We have to continue as a community to keep in front of Congress and the public the importance of our science in terms of the societal benefits,” says Cindy.

Cindy came to UCAR in 1990 from the CU Foundation, where she worked as a director of development. Active in the local community, she serves on the board of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. At UCAR, she started as the director of the former Office of Development, then took the helm of OGA about 10 years ago.

She finds it somewhat ironic that she’s landed in a scientific institution—in fact, the last time she wanted to do research was back in the fourth grade, long before she went to college and majored in English. “I liked to picture myself in a lab coat with a pocket protector, working with exploding test tubes,” she recalls.

But, as she says of her work in OGA, “It’s a very rewarding job. I’m not a researcher, but I appreciate the opportunity to communicate the importance of the atmospheric psciences to our nation.”

—David Hosansky

On the Web

UCAR Office of Government Affairs

The Weather Coalition

Last year, the Office of Government Affairs helped create an important new advocacy organization in the atmospheric sciences. The Weather Coalition, comprised of leaders in research, academia, and business, enables the academic community to work closely with corporations such as The Weather Channel, Boeing, Raytheon, and others to advance weather research and its applications. It urges Congress and the execazutive branch to enhance funding for major research collaborations among government agencies, universities, and private companies.

“Every year, severe weather costs the United States billions of dollars,” explains Cindy Schmidt, a staff member of the coalition. “Weather research can pay back its initial cost many times over by helping society to be safer and more productive.”

The goal of the Weather Coalition is to improve the country’s weather prediction and warning capabilities. This could provide an important boost for the U.S. economy while better protecting society from severe weather.

On the Web

The Weather Coalition

Also in this issue...

ISSE reflections on the tsunami

Random profile: Shu-Peng “Ben” Ho

Short Takes

NCAR to survey scientists, engineers

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