It Happened Here: NCAR and UCAR: History in a Nutshell, Part I
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February 1999
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series.

NCAR and UCAR: History in a Nutshell, Part I

"In meteorology we are confronted with one of the most difficult, most important, most challenging--and yet relatively one of the most neglected--scientific problems of our times. It is a sad commentary on the intellectual maturity of our generation that it is necessary to emphasize the fact that the problems of meteorology are scientific problems. Somewhere along the way from the fundamental study of the atmosphere as a complex physical entity to the practice of weather forecasting, as brought to us by the modern media of communications, there has been a tendency on many sides to lose sight of the basic scientific nature of meterology. In point of fact, the atmosphere was man's first scientific laboratory--the milieu in which early scientists could and did observe practically all of the phenomena studied in the physical sciences today."

--Interim report, Committee on Meteorology, National Academy of Sciences, January 1958

As we race towards the millennial hoopla of the year 2000, those of us in the atmospheric science community have a few of our own anniversaries to look forward to. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the High Altitude Observatory at its first site in Climax, Colorado. In 1950, Congress created the National Science Foundation to "promote and advance the progress of basic science and engineering." And one decade later in 1960, UCAR was established in Boulder. In view of these anniversaries, following is a brief look at the beginnings of UCAR and NCAR.

Despite the large and impressive training programs in the 1940s for weather officers and observers as part of meteorology's significant contribution to the war effort, the field lost ground in the postwar years for a number of reasons, becoming a sort of poor cousin to many other branches of science. In a perceptive article ("Up, Up and Away: The Reinvigoration

of Meteorology in the United States: 1958-1962," Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), October 1988), NSF's George Matuzan noted that an estimated 90% of American meteorologists, many of whom were forecasters, were employed by the federal government. These forecasters generally came to their jobs through experience, not formal academic training. In addition, the number of new people entering the field was woefully low. Not surprisingly, meteorology boasted the smallest percentage of doctoral degrees of any scientific discipline. Though generally of good quality, meteorological programs in the universities were few; even more limited were opportunities to learn about the field at the high-school level.

The U.S. Weather Bureau (later to become the National Weather Service) moved to rectify the situation both by requesting a substantial increase in its research budget and by petitioning the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to appoint a committee to push forward the new research initiative. In 1956, then-NAS president Detlev Bronk convened a Committee on Meteorology, a distinguished group that included, among several others, Carl-Gustaf Rossby, John von Neumann, Edward Teller, and later, Jule Charney.

By 1958, the committee was suggesting a broad, ambitious agenda for conducting interdisciplinary atmospheric research using "large and elaborate equipment" such as satellites and rockets; high-performance, large-capacity computers; and a fleet of aircraft, as well as drawing on the talents of scientists from many fields. To begin to deal with the personnel shortage in the field, the committee encouraged the AMS, with NSF support, to look at ways to stimulate student interest. NSF was further charged to explore scholarship and fellowship opportunities for new students. Finally, the committee recommended the establishment of an institute that would centralize the requisite large facilities and bring together researchers. Ideally, the institute would be operated independently by a university-sponsored corporation in a contractual arrangement with NSF.

Thus was NCAR born. (Initially NCAR was "NIAR"--the National Institute for Atmospheric Research. Since "NIAR" spells "RAIN" backwards, some have thought this to be the reason for the name change. However, this story appears to be apocryphal.)

In the April issue of Staff Notes Monthly, we will examine the role of the University Committee on Atmospheric Research, formed in 1958; its evolution into UCAR; and the siting of the national center (NCAR) in Boulder in 1960.

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