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March 2005

Rotating scientists recall time at NSF

Tom Bogdan                                           Al Cooper                                            Chris Cantrell

For ASP’s Al Cooper, the motivation for spending a year in Washington, D.C., at the National Science Foundation was to get a str onger sense of nationwide research into his field of physical meteorology. For ACD’s Chris Cantrell, it was to learn about managing a broad range of scientific programs. And for HAO’s Tom Bogdan, it was the opportunity to take a break from his research and get a fresh perspective.

The three scientists recently took advantage of an NSF rotation program, spending one to two years in the nation’s capital to help administer atmospheric science programs. They reviewed grant proposals and made funding recommendations, while finding time to work on personal research and learn about Washington agencies.

Now back at NCAR, they recently discussed their experiences with Staff Notes Monthly.

Getting recharged

“What better way to recharge than to go someplace new, have something totally different to do, and meet a new set of people,” Tom says. “I’d encourage mid-career scientists to do this.”

The temporary positions are known as “IPAs” because they are filled under the terms of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. By bringing in scientists from across the community to engage in administrative responsibilities, NSF ensures it will always have a fresh perspective. Scientists, for their part, get a front-row view of the federal funding process.
The scientists continued to get their salaries and benefits through UCAR, while NSF defrayed additional expenses. Tom was the first to enroll in the program, arriving in Washington for his two-year term in late 2001. Al and Chris each began one-year terms in 2003.

Although the three worked in different NSF program areas, they took on similar tasks that centered on reviewing hundreds of grant applications. Chris, for example, handled about 200 proposals a year, each of which had four to five reviews. Although this meant a lot of paperwork, Chris says, “The thing that I was pleasantly surprised about is that I spent quite a bit of time talking on the telephone to scientists about their research. I got to know a lot of people at meetings or over the phone.”

By discussing the grant proposals with both the researchers who submitted them and those who reviewed them, the NCAR scientists established relationships with colleagues across the country. They also stayed abreast of the latest research initiatives.

“You are looking at proposals from the best people in leading-edge science,” Al explains. “It was really a wonderful refresher course in my subject area.”

The IPA appointments enabled the scientists to get a broad overview of federally funded research. Since NSF is housed in a single building in Washington, Al, Chris, and Tom crossed paths with experts in many disciplines, learning about initiatives in areas ranging from international programs to chemical oceanography. They met with atmospheric scientists in other agencies as well, such as NOAA and NASA, and developed a sharper understanding of the different emphasis that each agency places on atmospheric research.

The experience helped them gain insights into funding, and they’re considering holding a seminar at NCAR for scientists on best practices for proposal writing. They also said they gained an appreciation in Washington for the hard work, and scientific insights, of NSF managers.

An IPA appointment is a good move for a scientist who has worked in the field for 15 to 20 years and is looking to take a break from daily research, they concluded. It’s also an important way to serve the larger science community.

“It’s a service function, much like being an editor of a journal,” Al explains. “I think there’s value in having it be spread through the community rather than exclusively in the hands of longtime program officers.”

Another important benefit, the scientists said, is helping scientists and managers at NSF and NCAR gain a deeper appreciation of the work at one another’s organizations.

Tom believes the next step could be movement in the other direction: an NSF scientist taking a sabbatical at NCAR. During his term in Washington, he discussed that idea at NSF and found a receptive audience.

“To really complete the two-way interaction, it would be critical to have one of their people come out here and spend six months or a year with us,” he says. “And I think they’re very open to it.”
David Hosansky

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