You Have to Protect Your Core

August 7th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In 2003 Dan Sarewitz and I wrote an article titled “Wanted: Scientific Leadership on Climate” (PDF). In that article we made the following brash assertion:

What happens when the scientific community’s responsibility to society conflicts with its professional self interest? In the case of research related to climate change the answer is clear: Self interest trumps responsibility.

Our argument was that the scientific community sought to take care of its own interests first while “the needs and capabilities of decisionmakers who must deal with climate change have played little part in guiding research priorities.”

If you need any evidence that little has changed in the five years since we wrote that article, have a look at this story by Andy Revkin in today’s New York Times. The article discusses the termination of the Center for Capacity Building at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the nation’s largest government-supported atmospheric (and related) sciences research lab.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research, an important hub for work on the causes and consequences of climate change, has shut down a program focused on strengthening poor countries’ ability to forecast and withstand droughts, floods and other climate-related hazards.

The move, which center officials say resulted from the shrinking of federal science budgets, is being denounced by many experts on environmental risk, who say such research is more crucial than ever in a world with rising populations exposed to climate threats.

In e-mail exchanges, these experts said the eliminated program, the Center for Capacity Building, was unique in its blend of research and training in struggling countries.

The Center for Capacity Building (still online at was created in 2004. It built on decades of work by its director, Michael Glantz, a political scientist who has focused on the societal effects of natural climate extremes and any shifts related to accumulating greenhouse gases.

What were the budget implications of this Center?

Altogether, the eliminated program had an annual budget of about $500,000. The budget for the entire atmospheric research center is $120 million.

According to data from the NSF (p. 384 of this PDF), the primary funder of NCAR, the NSF contribution to the NCAR budget for FY2009 is expected to grow by 9.5%, and the lab’s budget is projected to grow by about $13 million over the next decade. NSF explains (emphasis added):

In FY 2009, GEO support for NCAR will increase by $9.0 million, to a total of $95.42 million to: accelerate efforts in provide robust, accessible, andinnovative information services and tools to the community; enhance NCAR’s ability to provide to researchers world-class ground, airborne, and space-borne observational facilities and services; increase our understanding of societal resilience to weather, climate, and other atmospheric hazards; and increase efforts to cultivate a scientifically literate and engaged citizenry and a diverse and creative workforce.

So why did NSF have to cut a large part of its commitment to the social sciences? Cliff Jacobs, NSF program officer responsible for NCAR, explained the decision as follows:

Clifford A. Jacobs, the National Science Foundation’s section head for the atmospheric research center and related programs, said the decision did not mean that the center was interested only in basic physical climate science.

“This came as a very, very difficult decision,” Dr. Jacobs said. “You have to protect your core activities, but as budgets keep shrinking you have to redefine your core.”

In this case “shrinking” must mean “not growing as fast as we would like” since the budget has obviously not been decreasing in size. Let this be a reminder that as we often enjoy discussing the politics of the left and the right, some of the the most damaging politics are found in the battle among disciplines within academia. Unfortunately, in this case the collateral damage extends far beyond academia:

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Dr. Glantz said that he was let go Monday and that three other researchers were also losing their jobs. One, Tsegay Wolde-Georgis, left a similar program at Columbia University less than a year ago to work with Dr. Glantz. Dr. Wolde-Georgis’s focus is bolstering the ability of African nations to anticipate and withstand drought and other climate shocks.

I look forward to the day when serving the needs of decision makers becomes part of the “core” in the leading institutions of the atmospheric sciences.

12 Responses to “You Have to Protect Your Core”

  1. sb_steele Says:

    This is hugely ironic. Given the ever-increasing emphasis now placed on “broader impacts” by NSF, getting rid of the part of NCAR that arguably provides the most crucial broader impacts (“the betterment of societies and the well-being of individuals”) is quite hypocritical.

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  3. Rich N Says:

    To suggest that NCAR will certainly get some huge budget increase over the coming years is very misleading when you
    consider that they have seen effective budget cuts over each of the last 5 years – even when the requested budget was much higher, like for the 2009 figures you show. You can argue about whether they should have cut that particular program, but considering that NCAR has lost 10% of it’s staff over the last 5 years it certainly wasn’t the first thing to be cut. You make it sound like they are specifically targeting social sciences for cuts in the presence of a wonderfully rosy budget situation.

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  5. David Bruggeman Says:

    What’s more plain than “you have to protect your core”?

    This is a pretty consistent pattern of behavior within institutions (universities or government agencies). If resources (or resource growth) aren’t what we want them to be, the move is to protect what you know, and what you’re known for. This is a very distinct question from what the public utility of a program or institution might be.

    The NSF isn’t known for the broader criteria, nor for support of the social sciences, although it has made some effort in these areas. And if the national interest is contrary to theirs, they aren’t going to suggest some kind of self-sacrifice without something in it for them. Rational self-interest is alive and well.

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  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Rich N.-

    Thanks for your comments. A few replies . . .

    What is an “effective budget cut”? According to the NSF budget info I linked to NCAR has seen real increases in recent years, and I’ve seen data indicating a 40% overall increase since 2000. Now I know that funny things can happen between congressional appropriations and delivery to agencies and then from agencies to fundees. So if you have better budget info than that provided by NSF, please share.

    Cliff Jacobs at NSF confirmed that the current cuts were made because the program was not “core” to NCAR. A funny thing to say about a 35-year old program. Social science may not be “targeted” but it clearly isn’t perceived as “core”.

    As of May 2008 NCAR had 6 people on its scientific staff (i.e., scientist ladder) trained as social scientists. It now has 4. Seems like a big cut to me.

    Of course I’m biased in my judgments;-), but lacking a systematic approach to setting priorities, all that will be left is each group fighting for its piece of the pie. The larger failure here is that there is appears to be no clear way for NCAR to justify the cuts to the community, and the comments by Jacobs and Trenberth just add to the perception that the decisions are not based on merit, but disciplinary tribalism. Not a good way to make decisions.

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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Neville Nicholls, an Australian climate scientist and IPCC author, writes at Dot Earth:

    “Mickey Glantz and I have been friends and working colleagues for over quarter of a century. More than anyone else in the field of atmospheric and climate science, Mickey has been the iconic scientist working to ensure climate science can help society – the person who showed how climate science could be useful and used. His efforts have helped many, many scientists in many, many countries get involved in climate science and develop their skills, and show their political leaders the importance of climate. He has been a hugely successful disseminator of climate information, in a useable context, by publishing so many books I lost count years ago. For a very small investment, NCAR, through Mickey, trained scientists and users of climate science across the world, and NCAR and the USA gathered a lot of supporters across the world because of Mickey’s work. For many of my colleagues in many countries, the acronym “NCAR” means “Mickey” (and this is not to diminish the sterling work of my other NCAR friends and colleagues such as Warren Washington and Kevin Trenberth – but the reality is that Mickey has the widest and broadest and deepest respect across disciplines and countries). NCAR and climate science are poorer today, because of NCAR’s decision.”

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  11. TokyoTom Says:

    Roger, nice quote of you in Revkin’s piece: “Knowledge related to the societal dimensions of global environmental problems is fundamental to efforts to arrive at practical and effective solutions,” Dr. Pielke said. “If anything, we need to expand attention in these areas.”

    FWIW, I agree completely. If the Bush administration were really behind adaptation in the developing world, it would provide more funding for programs like this. But we all know that it has preferred defense and intelligence spending that it can channel to friends in the government leech industry.

    But since there are so many in the “skeptic” side of the debate who absolutely believe that we need a much greater focus on helping poorer countries to adapt (as opposed to further wasteful research and a focus on mitigation), I predict that this story will have real legs among the concerned folk in that section of the discussion and they’ll really rally support for greater funding for Mickey Glantz’s effort from the Bush adminstration and demand actions by the Dem Congress that will help the developing world adapt to climate change. Probably Marc Morano can organize the charge from Sen. Inhofe’s desk?

    Good for you for pushing this.

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  13. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    The decision in this case was not one made by the Bush Administration, but by the lab.

    I actually saw an email today from Fred Singer lamenting the cut. Another strength of Glantz’s work was that it enjoyed support across the entire spectrum of climate policy combatants. As I say in this post, this is a story of disciplinary politics, not left-right.

    I doubt that this decision will be reconsidered, but perhaps some other funder will step up. (Angels, plz email me asap;-)

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  15. peter webster Says:


    I apologize for being late in making a comment regarding the NCAR decision to release Mickey Glantz. but I have been on travel. It is a hollow statement by NCAR at best. But first, let me echo Neville Nicholls’ comments and say something about the influence that Mickey has had on my professional life and that of my family. I met Mickey Glantz when I first came to CU in the early 90’s. At that time I was thinking of how the research I had been doing could be used in a more general context. As I had been working on monsoon problems and tropical meteorology the transition was not difficult. Mickey’s advice was quite simple. Go out and mingle with the problem. This lead to the applications work that we did, and still do, in Bangladesh in developing forecasting modules for floods. Mickey’s second message was also simple: its one thing to produce a system but you have to work with the user to make the system useful. It was good advice for me and it well could be good advice to NCAR. Fifteen trips to Bangladesh later and the Bangladeshis have a system they now control and a capacity to forecast floods 10 days in advance. My son Ben worked with both you and Mickey and both of you were instrumental in setting the directions of his career. In my address after receiving the Rossby Award I suggested to young scientists that they look broadly at the applications of their science to global social problems. Mickey’s influence was acknowledged as well.

    So now Mickey has gone and NCAR is an emptier place because of it. Of all the scientists at NCAR, Mickey was the one who had (has!) the largest footprint outside of the US. But what I find intriguing is the implied statement from the new Director of NCAR saying that applications work is so important that we should have an AGU session on the subject but it is not important enough to do at NCAR as evidenced by the release of Mickey. Where does this place NCAR relative to the rest of the scientific community? NSF says that it must bolster its core mission. But what is this core mission?

    The personal aspect of Mickey Glantz aside (and that shouldn’t be forgotten), I wonder if we will find out what NCAR’s core mission is? What is so surprising is that NCAR, an NSF sponsored program, would eliminate a program that is indelibly tattooed on the NSF mission. If you are interested in a Science and Technology Center, try and do it without a social science aspect!

    The first sadness, of course, is the loss of Mickey Glantz at NCAR. After all of the years of dedicated work, this is a tragedy! The second sadness is the absence of a rounding program at NCAR. The third sadness is that neither UCAR, NCAR or NSF will explain itself.


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  17. jdannan Says:

    I’m interested in the technical/financial aspects of what happens to the researchers in question. I understand that NCAR employees are on renewable contracts – so do they simply not get renewed, with no redundancy pay or compensation? Mickey Glantz appears to be of pensionable age, but presumably there are a few other staff at more junior levels in his group.

    (FWIW perpetual short-term contracts were pretty much outlawed in Europe a few years ago, although they are still permitted in unusual circumstances.)

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  19. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Mickey Glantz had tenure, which in principle is supposed to be the same as at universities in the US. So firing him is a big deal. NCAR apparently has a loophole in its employment regulations allowing tenured scientists to be fired if their entire program is cut. There is a severance package that I understand is a function of time of service, which for Glantz is a very long time.

    As far as the 3 researchers that worked for Mickey, they were given 2 weeks notice. I am not aware of any further severance. Given that, I assume that they are “at will” employees rather than under annual contracts. NCAR invented a category of “project scientist” (as compared to “staff scientist” on the tenure track) a while ago to institutionalize these short term employment arrangements.

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  21. jdannan Says:

    Ah, I’ve just found which clearly says “In all cases the sum of notice and severance will equal one year.” That is for Scientists.

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  23. Eliminated Climate Program Finds New Home - Dot Earth Blog - Says:

    [...] resilience and development criticized the move in an article in The Times, on Dot Earth and on the Prometheus science-policy blog of Roger A. Pielke Jr., the Rockefeller Foundation took [...]