Science on NCAR

August 22nd, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

This week’s issue of Science has a long, investigative article on the troubles at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which we have been discussing here a bit over the past few weeks. The focus of the article is on NCAR’s climate modeling efforts, and it explores the budget and management issues that are currently troubling the institution.

The article, by Eli Kintisch, confirms what we have claimed about NCAR’s budget situation — specifically, NCAR’s woes can be traced to commitments made based on overly optimistic expectations for budget growth, and not budget cuts:

In 2004, NCAR’s then-director, Timothy Killeen, had launched a major restructuring that included expanding the lab, banking on a 2002 congressional promise of a 5-year doubling of the budget of its main funder, the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Congress failed to keep its promise, and NSF’s contribution to NCAR, instead of rising by double-digit percentages, has grown by only 2.6% annually in the past 5 years

Inflation has grown by an average of 2.9% per year over the same time period. The Science article thus confirms the analysis that I presented here a few weeks ago, finding that after accounting for inflation, NCAR’s budget is down, but only by $0.3 million since 2004.

The article has an interesting subsection titled “Gambling on Growth,” which explains how NCAR gained a reputation for climate modeling but sought to expand. Here is an excerpt:

But Killeen, who became director in 2000, wanted NCAR to do more, including increasingly detailed forecasts of the impacts of climate change and interdisciplinary studies on weather. So in 2004, he regrouped existing divisions into ESSL and labs for Earth observations, computing, and airborne-weather projects. He created a fifth lab to respond to growing interest in the societal impacts of climate change. Within the labs, Killeen also set up institutes devoted to interdisciplinary work and to the application of modeling and mathematical methods in geoscience. “It was a bold new initiative,” says Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, which operates NCAR for NSF.

Killeen hoped that NSF would finance the expansion as its overall budget grew. NSF’s contribution to NCAR did rise by 19% between 2001 and 2004, but in the past 5 years it has increased by only 10%. That below-inflationary rise has triggered “chronic wasting disease” at NCAR, says Anthes. It also spawned fears among some scientists about the cost of the new bureaucracy. Managers estimate that the reorganization has added $5 million in staffing and other administrative costs over 4 years. “Shouldn’t we really be about putting the money instead into scientific programs?” NCAR veteran scientist Peter Gilman recalls asking an assembly at NCAR in 2004. But without a growing contribution from NSF, Killeen was forced to ask NCAR managers to tighten their belts, including dipping into research funds to meet other expenses.

The article places blame for NCAR’s woes squarely at the feet of Tim Killeen, its former director who has moved to the NSF division that oversees NCAR (itself somewhat troubling, given how readily his peers seem willing to blame him for NCAR’s troubles). Placing blame on Killeen is a bit unfair, as Killeen’s actions were under the guidance and approval of UCAR, the organization with responsibility for management of NCAR, and accountability for its performance. Rick Anthes, President of UCAR, seems all too willing to shift the responsibility for the management decisions entirely onto Killeen, when in fact he is ultimately responsible for the problems at NCAR.

Eric Barron, who has succeed Killeen, may have walked into a buzz saw in taking the job. I wonder how deeply he was informed of NCAR’s troubles before taking the reins, as he is certainly on the hot seat now, maybe a bit unfairly. If Barron is paying attention he will notice how readily Rick Anthes has thrown Tim Killeen under the bus, and perhaps Barron will create a bit of space between NCAR and UCAR. (Though actions thus far suggest the opposite.) After all UCAR is not much without its crown jewel.

Finally, the article does leave unanswered a question about staffing levels that I discussed earlier this week:

The resulting belt-tightening has meant pink slips for 55 employees since 2003 (out of a workforce that has averaged 800 since then) and not replacing 77 others who retired or left.

Official figures show about 900 employees, so perhaps some are not included in the number Kintisch used.

The bottom line is that NCAR has some deep problems, which Kintisch describes in some detail, with a surprising number of climate modelers willing to go the record with strong criticisms of NCAR and UCAR management. One thing seems clear, more money won’t improve bad management, and may have the opposite effect. NSF needs to get UCAR and NCAR in line, before entities higher up the food chain step in and start asking questions.

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