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December 1998

Scientist IIIs and senior scientists: The view from the top

This is the fourth in a series of features about career paths within UCAR/NCAR/UOP. In this installment, former ASP postdoc Regina Cannon talks with nine staff at the Scientist III and senior scientist levels. As the series continues, Staff Notes Monthly will look at the pleasures and pains of staff on other career paths around the institution.

Adjectives that describe NCAR

Useful, helpful, remote, polite, competitive, rewarding, stressful, frustrating, enjoyable, supportive, fun, cooperative, satisfying, enriching, productive, broadening, high-quality, interesting, congenial, varied, impersonal, exciting, overwhelmingly diverse, worthwhile.

You've finally made it. You're a scientist hired without term. Tenured (essentially). How does it feel? I interviewed nine Scientist IIIs and senior scientists to find out. If it isn't the pressure to attain tenure, what is it that motivates these people? From their perch above, how have they seen NCAR change over the years and what advice can they offer to both junior scientists and upper management?

There are 32 Scientist IIIs and 56 senior scientists at NCAR. As for Parts 1 and 3 of this series, I chose my interviewees for this article more or less randomly. I tried not to oversample from any one division, I steered clear of individuals who had been interviewed recently for Staff Notes Monthly or whose schedules seemed to be booked until the latter half of 2001, and I tried to balance the number of males and females interviewed. Considering that the male-to-female senior-scientist ratio is 28:1, the last criterion proved impossible. Nevertheless, of the nine scientists interviewed, two were women. Two of the group were Scientist IIIs, the rest senior scientists. The divisions represented were ACD, CGD, HAO, and MMM. Seven of the nine interviewees had been at NCAR for 15 or more years. All interviewees were asked the following questions:

The times, they are a-changin'

Brian Ridley.

How has NCAR changed over the years? The answers ranged from "Not much" to "Absolutely enormously." Changes cited included: NCAR is now bigger, more frenzied, more bureaucratic, older (fewer younger scientists), less free, less cozy, more serious, more competitive. There is more dependence on scientists bringing in funding, in contrast to earlier times of essentially full support. Therefore, scientists spend more time hunting down outside money. Despite these changes, the scientists agreed that NCAR provides the opportunity to investigate personally satisfying problems. "NCAR is a great place to work," says Brian Ridley, ACD senior scientist. "It does a very good job of providing people with time to develop their own interests and careers."

Making tenure

The current review process for NCAR scientists was established in the late 1970s. Before then, "we didn't really notice tenure. The appointments were made in a more relaxed mode, with less paperwork. There was some anxiety, but not much," says Jack Herring, now a senior scientist emeritus in MMM after his June retirement.

Jack Herring.

Rol Madden.

The interviewees fell into two groups: those who felt stressed during the tenure process and those who didn't. Rol Madden, a CGD senior scientist, felt that the pressure on him then was no more intense than the pressure he still feels today: "My boss and my colleagues were very supportive during the process, and I didn't feel too much pressure." However, he adds, "I sense now with the younger people that this is a very big concern dominating their outlook."

ACD's Bill Randel felt that there was some pressure associated with his promotion to Scientist III but that "it wasn't too stressful. I did all the things you're supposed to do. If you work hard and are productive, you're generally accepted. I'm more stressed now than five years ago--I have to bring in money now to support other people and make bigger decisions."

Bill Randel.

Also in the less-stressed camp was Peggy LeMone (MMM). "People ask me why I didn't think much about promotion. I think one of the reasons is that I knew women who were far worse off than I was. Some of them were on welfare, some of them were doing sewing in their home for low wages. So I didn't think about it much." Although Peggy says it was gratifying to reach the senior-scientist level after 19 years at NCAR, "now it doesn't feel much different. In some ways, it's harder because resources are scarce."

Other scientists felt the impact of the tenure process a bit more intensely. Tom Bogdan (HAO) went from Scientist I to senior scientist in ten years. "I worked way too hard and it cost me my first marriage. I'm remarried now and very happy, but at the time it was devastating." Once he made tenure (in the quickest time in NCAR's history), he says, "I became totally burned out. I thought to myself, I've written 60 papers, so what? Did any of them make a difference? So I went on sabbatical and started working on different problems. I need to keep learning. I've diversified."

Tom Bogdan.

The sources of scientific passion

"I come from a family of scientists," says Byron Boville, a senior scientist in CGD. Byron's father was the chair of the meteorology department at McGill University, "so I sort of fell into it. It's the most interesting thing to me." His motivation today? "At one time," Byron smiles, "I thought I was laid back. Other people, when I would suggest that, would laugh hysterically. I'm intensely competitive. Just being recognized as one of the best is pretty important to me."

Rol Madden's path to meteorology was "pure serendipity." Drafted at age 22, he ended up finishing college through a deferment and then joining the Air Force as a lieutenant. "The Air Force put me in meteorology. I forecasted weather for airplanes and missile launches from Cape Canaveral."

Byron Boville.

Peggy's house was struck by a thunderbolt when she was in third grade. "At that time I had wanted to be a fireman. When lightning struck our house and exploded the roof and filled the house with smoke, we called the fire department. After that, I realized that it was the weather that was more interesting. The following day was show-and-tell, so I brought in splinters from the roof, charred wood, and lawn furniture that had been destroyed by the bricks that had flown out from our chimney. That was my first talk on weather." Peggy says she still enjoys watching the weather, although, ironically, "the weather I'm studying now is the fair-weather boundary layer."

Joe Tribbia.

Joe Tribbia, a senior scientist in CGD, ascribes his attraction to science to youthful competence: "I'm a believer that you're attracted to things that you do well in initially. Science and math are things that I could excel at in my youth. I was less interested in things that would be a long struggle."

Advice to the up-and-coming

The upper-level scientists mentioned bottom-line activities, such as writing papers, participating in large research efforts, and serving on international committees. They also provided a few more general guidelines.

"First of all, be objective about taking advice from other people," says Jack. "I've seen cases where junior people have stuck to pursuits they were curious about against all advice and it worked."

Byron advises, "Complete things, then move on. It's easy to keep working on something, adding a bell or a whistle here or there. Get something published and then [go on to] something new."

According to Joe, young scientists need to listen to their intuition. "Work on what's interesting to you. Develop your own curiosity and own sense of creativity. Working in areas you find fulfilling will get you to a fruitful end."

Anne Smith.

"The research tends to ebb and flow," notes Anne Smith, a Scientist III in ACD. "When you're in a period when you're not getting much done, the stress to produce really starts to weigh you down. Make sure you're doing something that keeps your interest. There are lots of difficulties in being a scientist, [but] as long as you love what you're doing, you can weather those, and keep going."

"Follow your heart," says Tom. "It's easy to do some things because you think other people will like them." Peggy adds: "Meet a lot of people so people know who you are. Learn how to write and speak well, because no matter how good your work is, if you can't communicate it, people won't know that it's good."

Suggestion box

All of the upper-level scientists prefaced their suggestions by noting that NCAR overall is a great place to work. Still, as thoughtful problem-solvers, they sense there is room for improvement.

"I'd like to do whatever I want," Rol smiles, "but those days are gone. That will never return. I feel fortunate I was here when NCAR was like that." As for today's research climate, says Byron, "A few less reviews would be nice. Some more money would be nice. One of the biggest problems is a narrowing of focus due to the shrinking NSF budget."

Finding ways to meet informally, to brainstorm, to open up discussion across divisional lines, to connect on a jargon-free and acronym-free level were cited as important but missing in the day-to-day NCAR experience. For Anne, NCAR gives the impression of being "very bureaucratic. There needs to be some work between the administrative part of NCAR and the scientific staff to make it seem less like they are two separate entities."

In Joe's eyes, "NCAR is not reaching its full potential. As an institution it is more than the sum of its parts, but it could be a an even greater sum than it currently is. We need to come to grips with how to better collaborate across divisional lines and across disciplinary boundaries. There's very little time for collective brainstorming within the organization. I think that's one thing that could be fostered."

"There's a real disconnect," says Tom, between upper management and the scientific staff. Managers need to "make people feel connected," according to Tom. "Not being [a manager] myself, it looks easy. But in practice it's probably a much harder thing to do."

According to Peggy, "Senior management can't act as an advocate for NCAR unless they know what's going on and really care about it." She also agrees with the need for more places for informal interaction. "I just read a wonderful biography of Madame Curie. One of the greatest things they had at her institute was a place at the bottom of the stairs with a blackboard. Everybody would get together [there] and start talking spontaneously. There was always something going on. Years later, when people were interviewed who worked there, this is one of the things they remembered."

Hopes for NCAR's future

"My vision for NCAR," says Joe, "is that it will remain one of the leading scientific organizations in environmental research. I open it up from atmospheric to environmental because we're talking about the science of the planet at this point. My hope is that we focus on important scientific problems and recognize that there is quite a bit of utility in our enterprise not only for ourselves and our country but for society in general."

Several scientists voiced the hope that NCAR could rebuild its core support from NSF. Core funding has decreased somewhat in real terms over the last ten years, while funding through NSF intiatives and through numerous smaller grants from other agencies has increased markedly, resulting in overall real growth at NCAR. (See the Frequently Asked Questions list for more on the UCAR/NCAR/UOP budget process.)

"When you get into more non-NSF-core funding" says Brian, "it's more and more difficult to develop larger projects that can generate university collaboration. Core funding is much more flexible than non-core. If you have a good idea and want to pursue it, it's really the core funding that may allow that to happen."

Jack echoes this concern. "I hope that NCAR does not yield to the pressures of funding from outside sources so that it becomes a job-shopping outfit, struggling for funds and searching out any work it can get paid for. There should be a fairly high-level decision of what issues are important scientifically, and we should pursue those issues despite budgetary constraints."

Some of the senior scientists thought that renewable terms for upper-management positions should be considered. Renewability would keep the system flexible, while the term system would help facilitate turnover and keep a flow through upper-management slots.

The need for community among senior scientists is great, says Tom. "There's a group of us who have formed the Senior Scientists Assembly." He pauses and smiles: "We had to be careful not to call it the Assembly of Senior Scientists, because that acronym goes the wrong way. It's about people speaking about scientific issues that cut across divisional lines." The assembly started as a way to formalize this interaction, although Tom says it's been a challenge to get senior scientists involved in the group.

"I hope that NCAR can become more interactive, particularly between divisions," says Anne, who calls for periodic evaluation of the divisional structure: "Maybe we should have fewer divisions, for example." Also, says Anne, "The fact that NCAR is split into two buildings that are far apart is really a problem." Though the shuttle eases the impact, "I feel it because I interact with people in HAO and I'm really aware of the physical distance."

"We could learn more about how to work together instead of separately," says Peggy, who envisions an NCAR "where there is a collegial atmosphere more than a competitive atmosphere. Some of the things going on in ASP are right on the money. They have seminars where people can learn about a topic from somebody who can speak English about the topic. If I could rule the world, I'd like to see fewer people running off writing individual proposals at NCAR and more people getting together for a joint effort. That's where our strength will be."

According to Anne, "There are not enough younger people coming into the organization and infusing it with fresh blood and energy. There's a move to define positions, like project scientist, that seem more temporary. We should create more positions for younger scientists where they [would feel] they had a long-term future."

"There's a natural trend toward entropy in organizations." says Tom. " 'Good' people have a 50-50 chance of appointing 'bad' people, [simply] because we all make mistakes. 'Bad' people, on the other hand, very rarely have the good fortune of appointing 'good' people. So we have to be vigilant about getting good people and maintaining scientific excellence over political expediency."

That's all, folks

So we end with a picture of nine upper-level scientists as a satisfied group overall, but one that also has clear ideas for how NCAR might be improved. These suggestions could affect all levels of NCAR, including administrative staff, junior and senior scientists, division directors, and top management.

I am grateful to all the interviewees in this series for their candid remarks, for sharing their time and their stories, and finally for showing me up close what I knew all along: NCAR is made up of great individuals who care deeply about the institution and about where science is headed. •Regina Cannon

A twister on LeMone Boulevard

Peggy LeMone.

Last month, decades after a lightning strike ignited her love of weather, MMM senior scientist Peggy LeMone learned of another twist of fate in her home town of Columbia, Missouri. A tornado struck around 2:00 a.m. on 9 November, destroying more than 20 homes and damaging more than 50 others but causing only minor injuries. The storm produced substantial damage along LeMone Industrial Boulevard, an industrial park developed by her brother, Bob. (According to Peggy, Columbia has a long-standing tradition that real-estate developers name streets after themselves, their children, cousins, nieces, and so on.) Peggy's relatives were all safe and sound after the storm. •BH

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