Archive for August, 2008

Staffing Cuts at NCAR: A Puzzle

August 19th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

NCAR’s decision to terminate its CCB group has motivated some posts here focused on understanding the justifications given for the decision. One claim that we haven’t yet explored was put forward by UCAR’s Rick Anthes in a press release:

Over the past five years NCAR has had to lay off approximately 55 people and have lost another 77 positions due to attrition, totaling roughly 16% of NCAR positions, because of sub-inflationary NSF funding and decreases in other agency support.

I have gone to the UCAR website and downloaded official reports (available here) on the staffing “head count” across its organization. The graph below shows this information for PhD scientists, other scientists (their category), total scientists (the previous two numbers together), total NCAR employment and total UCAR/NCAR employment. Note that for all years the data is as of September 30, except 2008 which is June 30 (about 7 weeks ago).

Some things to note about the data, and hence the puzzle hinted at in the title.

1. The number of UCAR/NCAR PhD scientists has increased 2004-2008 by 31, to 268, representing a 16% increase. Over the same period, the number of other scientists has decreased by 16, to 127, representing a 12% decrease. However, the 2008 value is identical to 2005, and 10 more than 2007.

2. The total number of scientists in the organization increased 2004-2008 from 374 to 395, representing a 6% increase.

3. The total staff in the NCAR division of UCAR decreased by 29 positions from 2004 to 2008 from 936 to 907. However, in 2005 the total was 868, so from 2005-2008 the headcount increased by 39 positions.

4. Overall, total UCAR/NCAR employment increased by 25 positions from 2004 to 2008, to 1477 employees. From 2005-2008 the increase was 80 positions.

So the puzzle is: where are these “lost” 142 positions? The official data from UCAR/NCAR on its “head count” do not reflect this large number of lost positions. In fact, they show that NCAR’s staff is 29 less than 2004 but 39 more than 2005 levels. The entire organization has grown since 2004, as its scientific staff has grown by 21 scientists.

Anyone care to resolve this puzzle?

Exchange of Views on Climate Policy

August 19th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Over at Cato-Unbound you can see four perspectives on climate policy from Jim Manzi, Joe Romm, Indur Goklany, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

You’ll see that the four perspectives are not all mutually incompatible, and in fact, each person has something insightful to add to the discussion. I particularly like the Nordhaus/Shellenberger notion of “Disagreeing to Agree”. It is nice to see an exchange of views from diverse positions on the climate issue. Cato doesn’t appear to allow comments, but if readers would like to discuss the policy debate on this thread, I’d be happy to join in the discussion.

NCAR’s Budget Woes

August 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Today’s Daily Camera has a short but interesting story about NCAR’s budget woes. The reporter quotes me accurately, but unfortunately characterizes my quote as alleging “sloppy budgeting.” This is not the right characterization. Here is the relevant passage:

Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado whose research also deals with the societal effects of global warming, is concerned that NCAR’s explanation for its financial problems may suggest sloppy budgeting.

“To claim such a shortfall (of $8 million) suggests that NCAR’s appetite for funds has exceeded political realities,” Pielke wrote in an e-mail. “Just because budgets have not increased as fast as NCAR would like doesn’t mean that their budgets have been cut (as they have claimed). Similarly, just because expenses have gone up doesn’t mean that they are entitled to automatic increases. Effective management means making good decision in times of plenty and lean times as well.”

As we have shown here in an earlier post, NCAR’s FY2008 budget is after adjusting for inflation $0.3M less than that in FY2005. This would imply a reduction in perhaps 2 FTE, not the 110 claimed by NCAR. So the problem is increasing obligations, not “budget cuts”, which the Camera story confirms (emphasis added):

“It’s pure and simple,” said Eric Barron, who became NCAR’s director a month ago. “We’ve had too many years of flat budgets with an increase in obligations.”

Last year, raises were deferred for employees, and the center, which opened in Boulder in 1960, has lost more than a hundred staff through lay-offs and attrition.

Barron said that NCAR has research obligations with the National Science Foundation that grow over time, but the flat budget from the foundation hasn’t kept pace. Rhetoric in Washington about increased support for sciences hasn’t been up with cash, compounding the problem.

“People don’t realize that each year there has been an expectation that the support for scientific endeavors will grow,” Barron said.

So the issue is not so much “sloppy” budgeting, as I am sure that Eric Barron and his predecessor Tim Killeen are perfectly fine managers. The issue is how it is that NCAR’s obligations have grown so fast beyond the rate of inflation and beyond the pace of appropriations. How much? As we have discussed, NCAR claims that it has a shortfall of $8 million in FY2008, or 9% (!) above the rate of inflationary growth in FY2008. My guess is that there are three explanations for the rapid grown in obligations:

1. Forces beyond NCAR’s control, like the increasing costs of energy and perhaps health care.

2. Counting chickens before they hatch in the form of planning on increasing appropriations in line with the America COMPETES congressional authorization bill. If commitments are made to spend funds before those funds are actually appropriated, then reductions will be needed if the expected funding do esnot materialize. Barron’s highlighted quote above suggest that this was the case.

3. Self-imposed cost growth by taking on large obligations, such as associated with the annual costs of the HIAPER aircraft. Rick Anthes has hinted that the HIAPER aircraft has resulted in an unanticipated annual cost of 0.6% of the NCAR budget.

Of these, 2 and 3 are the responsibility of management decisions to take on additional obligations that did not fit into the appropriated budget. It would be interesting to see a careful accounting of the increase in NCAR’s obligations, to understand exactly why they now need funding 9% higher than inflationary growth. Such a rate of accelerated growth is not sustainable and probably should not be planned for.

Let them eat projections?

August 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This is a guest post by Ben Wisner, author of At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters.

Michael Glantz, the director of the Capacity Building Center at the U.S. National Center for Climate Research (NCAR), whose 30 year old program was suddenly cut, has written an open letter about the gulf between natural/physical and social science. See it here.

Despite all the protestations, attempts, and aspirations among readers of and writers to RADIX (Home for Radical Interpretations of Disasters and Radical Solutions at ) and many others who are currently working at the interface of natural/ physical science and social science (e.g., here), interdisciplinarity is still marginal in academia, and “normal science” on the archetypal model of physics is still hegemonic. That’s part of the problem. A second part of the problem is historic and rooted in the prestige of natural philosophy in late medieval/ early modern universities as they began to develop and gain some independence from rulers and priests in some of the wealthier and more liberal city states.

A third component is sheer power politics and their reflection in public administration. The “men in suits” at NCAR are engineers and physicists. Fourthly, one can seek part of the explanation from a brilliant man called Karl Marx wrote without the aid of a super computer. He described the pressure within capitalist production to increase the ratio of machines and technology to workers. Marx called that the organic composition of capital. So what is the work at NCAR but intellectual production? Is it surprising that work that requires super computers and contracts for dozens of large U.S. companies is given priority to work that is done sitting under a mango tree with farmers with a pen and paper?

All these biases are interwoven and culturally colored with kaleidoscopic complexity by the time one arrives at a particular budgetary decision in a particular U.S. government institution, NCAR. Baffled and dismissive, any senior manager there would ask, if they bother to read this far, “Karl who?” In the case of the capitalist production process in science and academia, where is the surplus and who profits?

Almost two years ago I wrote a “Cri du coeur” — anguished rant — about the disappearance of farmers, herders, fishers, and other real people in the algorithms of climate impact models. I was concerned then with umpteen power point presentations I had been seeing which started with a colorful tableau of African women hoeing or threshing grain, and then continued for 30 slides of graphs based on very tenuous and often swallowed assumptions about politics and society. The result was to show, in the N-th slide, a projection of some level of poverty in 50, 80, 100 years. The people had completely disappeared, their own ability to understand what is happening to their world, and their creative responses. It was precisely this that Mickey Glantz and his team studied and elucidated: what lies behind all the hidden and unconscious assumptions made by the modelers.

In the super computer modeling business, we see another instance of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”. The profit goes to the companies providing the technology and to those whose entry to African markets is facilitated by the diplomatic leverage and credibility of having “scientific answers” for policy makers. Not surprisingly, the answers usually imply massive hydro-engineering projects, import of fertilizers and agro-chemicals, hiring of consultant advisors, etc. – in other words, more profit for the U.S. companies and consultants who supply these services. There is also “profit” in scientific prestige for the modeler and the access to mega buck research grants (with university overheads at 40%) that major journal publication affords.

The invisible farmers, urban side walk vendors and artisans, herders, fishers, merchants, truck drivers, are only an “input” to the models. They are not stakeholders, participants, and beneficiaries. The work at NCAR that has been killed off gave such people voice.

So, in short, I see what Dr. Glantz as calmly referred to as a “wall” as more like a “barricade”. NCAR seems like the Bastille, the defenders of the relevance of Big Science to the needs of two-thirds of humanity are still saying, “let them eat projections.”

Don’t Let that Door Hit You on the Way Out

August 17th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Over at Dot Earth, NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth gets his parting shots in on the fired Mickey Glantz, and in the process changes the focus from a discussion programmatic priorities into something a bit more personal. Kevin apparently didn’t get the memo explaining that Mickey was fired as a member of a low-priority program at NCAR, and not for the people with whom or manner in which he chose to collaborate with physical and social scientists. Most troubling about Kevin’s piling on is his assertion that Mickey’s failure to participate in the IPCC somehow lowered his standing at NCAR:

Physical and social sciences are indeed different in several ways. In physical science we deal a lot more with facts and numbers, and the theories and analysis are based on physical laws. In climate science, we have been able to state that global warming is unequivocal (to paraphrase from the IPCC report) and will continue to some degree for decades regardless of mitigating actions. And so everyone will have to adapt to and cope with the effects of climate change. How we best do that is widely recognized at NCAR and elsewhere as a major issue requiring interactions between physical scientists, who provide the best information possible, and social scientists, who are involved in how best society can adapt to the projected changes to minimize impacts, reduce vulnerability, and best use the information to improve decisions. Many of us are engaged in these aspects, including through IPCC, perhaps even more than Mickey? In fact there are many other social scientists at NCAR and it is not fair to say that social science has been “removed”. Unlike Mickey, many are heavily engaged in the IPCC process.

Kevin explains that he wasn’t part of the management team that terminated the Center for Capacity Building, but in this letter defending the decision on behalf of his employer, is it really a good idea to suggest Mickey’s failure to participate in the IPCC as part of the justification for his firing?

Kevin sees “many other social scientists at NCAR”. By my count, there are four people trained as social scientists at NCAR on its “scientist ladder” (i.e., based-funded scientists on the tenure track). There are 2 economists (Miller, Lazo), one population scientist (O’Neill), and one sociologist (Romero Lankao). There are approximately 110 such scientists on the tenure track at NCAR. Where Kevin sees “many” I see four — perhaps the difference betweens seeing four social scientists as “many” versus “few” lies at the heart of Glantz’s beef with his former employer. I will be happy to be corrected if there are other social scientists on the scientific ladder I don’t know of.

Final note: Kevin’s inane comment that physical scientists deal more with “facts and numbers” reveals some of the cultural divide that Glantz and others have discussed.

Senators to Bush on NCAR, but Miss the Target

August 16th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

So this is interesting. Four Senators have written a letter to President Bush asking him to provide funding for NCAR’s Center for Capacity Building (CCB). The letter can be seen here in PDF and the Senators are Menedez, Sanders, Casey, and Kerry.

The letter is off target for several reasons, not least because the Bush Administration had nothing to do with the termination of the CCB. In fact, no one in government appears to have any role in the cutting of the CCB, although the relevant NSF program officer approved of the decision. Furthermore, each of these Senators could easily keep the CCB going with an earmark, so they are asking the President to do something that he really can’t do (tell a NSF grantee how to spend their funds) but that they could do much easier. (But to be clear, this would be a bad idea, because no one wants Congress meddling in the spending of NSF grants at the $500k level! Been there, done that.) Given these facts, it is clear that the letter really isn’t about the CCB, rather it is just another opportunity to play partisan politics in the area of climate science.

More broadly however, the letter does indicate that policy makers do pay attention when scientists justify their work as being relevant to policy. NCAR will continue to have a hard time selling the idea that climate science is settled sufficiently for aggressive mitigation action to occur, yet maintain that they need to shore up that science with the itty bitty amount of funds for adaptation that NCAR previously had. If the science is settled, then now is the time to scale back that research. Who studies settled science?

I have no doubt that NCAR will try to sell policy makers on the idea that effective adaptation policies will require the predictive knowledge that comes only from the output of sophisticated global climate models (see, e.g., this paper). Having a program in place with a 34-year track record that shows that adaptive successes have absolutely no need for such predictions would probably be inconvenient.

Mickey Glantz says more along these lines in a letter at Dot Earth.

Two Distinguished Scientists, Two Views on Science in Politics

August 15th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Today I came across two views of the role of science in politics presented by two very distinguished scientists. The first, Harvard’s John Holdren, tells us that:

The science of climate change is telling us that we need to get going.

The notion that science tells us what to do leads Holdren to appeal to authority to suggest that not only are his scientific views correct, but because his scientific views are correct, then so too are his political views.

Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by the denier fringe should ask themselves how it is possible, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that:

The leaderships of the national academies of sciences of the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and India, among others, are on record saying that global climate change is real, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early, concerted action.

This is also the overwhelming majority view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every first-rank university in the world.

All three of holders of the one Nobel prize in science that has been awarded for studies of the atmosphere (the 1995 chemistry prize to Paul Crutzen, Sherwood Rowland, and Mario Molina, for figuring out what was happening to stratospheric ozone) are leaders in the climate-change scientific mainstream.

U.S. polls indicate that most of the amateur skeptics are Republicans. These Republican skeptics should wonder how the presidential candidate John McCain could have been taken in. He has castigated the Bush administration for wasting eight years in inaction on climate change, and the policies he says he would implement as president include early and deep cuts in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. (Barack Obama’s position is similar.)

The extent of unfounded skepticism about the disruption of global climate by human-produced greenhouse gases is not just regrettable, it is dangerous. It has delayed – and continues to delay – the development of the political consensus that will be needed if society is to embrace remedies commensurate with the challenge.

By contrast, Robert Lackey a career scientist at EPA, paints a very different picture:

Recently I presented a talk to a group of community activists about why salmon populations along the West Coast have dropped to less than 5% of their historical levels. I’ve given such talks many times so I was confident that I had heard just about every question that might be asked. I was wrong.

The opening question was asked by a well known political activist. He was direct, pointed, and bursting with hostility: “You scientists always talk about our choices, but when will you finally tell us what we SHOULD do about the dramatic decline of West Coast salmon? Quit talking about the science and your research and tell us what we should do! Let’s get on with it!”

From the nods of approval offered by many in the audience, his impatience with science and scientists was broadly shared. . .

In a pluralistic society, with a wide array of values and preferences competing for dominance, the ecological policy debate is usually centered around whose values and preferences will carry the day rather than over scientific information.

So what was my answer to the emotionally charged question from the political activist? It was: “Science, although an important part of policy debates, remains but one element, and often a minor one, in the decision-making process. We scientists can assess the ecological consequences of various policy options, but in the end it is up to society to prioritize those options and make their choices accordingly.”

He wasn’t pleased.

If you are a scientist, then you have to figure out what you think about the relation of science in policy and politics. If you think that science compels political outcomes then you will follow the lead of John Holdren. If you think that science does not compel political outcomes, then you’ll follow the lead of Robert Lackey. But you do have to choose.

My advice? See what scholars of science in policy and politics have to say about this question, and make an informed decision. One of these distinguished scientists has views consistent with the consensus view of relevant experts, and one does not.

The Rise and Fall of the Space Shuttle

August 14th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the September-October issue of The American Scientist I have a book review of The Final Countdown: NASA and the end of the Space Shuttle program by Pat Duggins. I write of the book:

Pat Duggins’s timely and thoroughly enjoyable book Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program is a hard-hitting account of the post-Apollo human spaceflight program, focusing primarily on the space shuttle. Duggins is a senior news analyst at public radio station WMFE in Orlando, Florida, and has followed the space program closely for many years. That he is a very knowledgeable observer is evident in this short but well-written book. Although he doesn’t hesitate to criticize NASA, his perspective is ultimately optimistic.

I write of NASA:

Since NASA’s creation in the 1950s, its history has followed a course that calls to mind the Greek tragedies—tremendous early success, followed by a series of catastrophes and failures, which share the same root cause. Nearly 40 years have passed since NASA had its most notable successes, which culminated in Neil Armstrong’s walk on the lunar surface. Since then, the agency has struggled to come up with meaningful goals that could take advantage of the sustained political support the agency has enjoyed over the decades. NASA has a rich tradition and employs the world’s best scientists and engineers. Yet in recent decades its most notable moments have come in the form of disasters and their aftermath. And the institutional and cultural problems that led to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 went largely uncorrected for 17 years and contributed to the Columbia accident in 2003. The agency’s identity crisis continues and will stretch into the next presidential administration and perhaps beyond. How the story of its space shuttle program will end remains highly uncertain.

You can find the full review here.

The Hockey Stick Debate as a Matter of Science Policy

August 13th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Here at Prometheus we have for years closely followed the controversy over the so-called temperature reconstruction “hockey stick.” So it was with some interest that I saw this blog post linked from Climate Audit, apparently written by a Scottish libertarian blogger called Bishop Hill. Hill writes of the recent years of the hockey stick debate:

The story is a remarkable indictment of the corruption and cynicism that is rife among climate scientists, and I’m going to try to tell it in layman’s language so that the average blog reader can understand it.

And indeed Hill’s post is well-written, and accurate as far as I can tell. Of course, such stories have as many sides as there are participants, so if any of those involved including Steve McIntyre or Caspar Ammann would like to post or comment here, they’d be welcome.

Long-time readers (do we have any?;-) will recall that in the fall of 2005 we issued a challenge to Steve McIntyre and Michael Mann, the lead protagonists on either side of the debate, to explain to us policy-oriented folks why we should care about their very public squabbling.

Steve McIntyre took us up on our challenge (as did his collaborator Ross McKitrick). Michael Mann declined the invitation. McIntyre explained that the debate over the hockey stick mattered not because of its direct relevance to the debate over what to do about global warming, but because of matters of what we call around here “science policy“– peer review, public confidence in science, and simply getting this right rather than wrong. McIntyre explained that if he were the head of the IPCC,

I would be particularly angry at being placed in a position where I used this logo and wasn’t fully informed about adverse information pertaining to it. I also wouldn’t be leaving it up to some probably adversarial committee like the Barton Committee to sort this out. I’d be all over the problem so that my community, the community of climate scientists, was not further embarrassed and so that government institutions would be able to rely confidently on the opinions of IPCC. . .

If our very logo for IPCC TAR blew up on us, then something was wrong with our procedures for review. I wouldn’t go around patting ourselves on the back and telling everyone that this was the most “rigorous” review procedure in the history of science, since we’d goofed on such a prominent issue. I’d want to know why we goofed and how to avoid it in the future, or at least, how to minimize the chances of a recurrence. So when some redneck tried to use the Hockey Stick fiasco against IPCC, I’d at least have an answer.

While I am not in a position to evaluate the merits of the technical arguments of McIntyre’s criticisms of the Hockey Stock (the NAS and Wegman Reports weighed in on that), his complaints about the science policy aspects of the issue have stood the test of time.

In response to the Bishop Hill piece McIntyre writes:

There’s a definite foolhardiness and contemptuousness of the public by the IPCC and, in particular, the core of the Hockey Team. . . Every step of the process has been publicly documented. You’d think that they’d have been extra diligent in their reviewing. Instead, what we see is one thing botched after another and one sly manouevre after another.

If this is representative of how climate articles are written and how climate peer reviewing is done, what a pathetic performance. They might say – well, this is a bad example. To which I’d say, well, you knew that it was in the public eye, it should have been a good example, why wasn’t it?

I’ve compared the issue to the WMD argument, which was also a cheap way of arousing the public; and, myself to an analyst who observes that an aluminum tube is sometimes just an aluminum tube. That doesn’t mean that other arguments for the war couldn’t be made or that the war was right or wrong; just that it was justified based on the aluminum tube argument. In that case, some effort was made to understand why they got the WMD intelligence wrong.

I agree. Having collaborated a bit with Steve McIntyre in recent years, and seen how the community reacts to him in the peer review process, I have seen some of the frothing and irrationality that he stirs. Further, as a long-time observer of this debate, how the more vocal climate science community has dealt with the criticisms of the Hockey Stick and McIntyre’s determined efforts is really an embarrassment to all of the hard-working and brilliant scientists who work out of the limelight trying to advance knowledge in a rigorous manner. The problem is that the behavior of the few reflects upon the community as a whole.

McIntyre may never get the recognition that he deserves from the climate science community (though some, like Peter Webster and Judy Curry have shown leadership by recognizing Steve’s legitimacy, and apparently taken their lumps for it), but within science policy circles it is becoming increasingly clear that has made a significant contribution to upholding the integrity of climate science, and for this he should be applauded.

The Death of Environmentalism?

August 12th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I was surprised to see the data that I’ve graphed below reported in an ABC News et al. poll (PDF) showing that people are less likely to describe themselves as “environmentalists”. The specific question asked was, “Do you consider yourself an environmentalist or not?”

If we were in one of my environmental policy classes, an obvious question to ask of this data would be, does this trend reflect a failure of the environmental movement? A failure of the public? Something else?