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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report Executive Summary The National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for the overall health of science and engineering across all disciplines and for ensuring the nation’s supply of scientists, engineers, and science and engineering educators. NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences (ATM) supports research to develop new understanding of Earth’s atmosphere and how the Sun impacts it. In addition, ATM supports activities to enhance education at all levels, the diversity of the scientific community, and outreach to the public. ATM scientists conduct research to address NSF-wide priorities and participate in interagency and international research efforts. ATM employs a range of modes of support for these activities: grants to individuals and to teams of researchers; small research centers; a large federally funded research and development center, specifically the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) located in Boulder, Colorado; and the acquisition, maintenance, and operation of observational and computational facilities operated by NCAR, universities, and other entities. ATM has asked the National Academies to perform a study that will provide guidance on the division’s strategy for achieving its goals in the atmospheric sciences (See Appendix A for full statement of task). This request reflects a desire by ATM to get a broad view on the health of the atmospheric sciences and to get some guidance on how best to direct resources in the future. In response, the National Academies have formed the Committee on Strategic Guidance for NSF’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences. The committee authored this interim report, which aims to provide some preliminary insight in response to the charge from NSF and will also deliver a final report in fall 2006 in which the study charge will be fully addressed.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report In considering future directions for the atmospheric sciences, the committee reviewed some aspects of the evolution of the atmospheric sciences over the past several decades. The body of the report also offers some preliminary analysis of the strengths and limitations of the various modes of support employed by ATM. On the basis of these analyses, the committee has identified the findings and recommendations discussed below. The order of the findings and recommendations presented here and in the main body of the report does not strictly reflect priorities, but rather is presented to aid the reader in following the development of the ideas presented. In these findings and recommendations, the committee aims to identify broad areas where additional attention by ATM is warranted; after further deliberation, more specific guidance will be provided in the committee’s final report. EMPLOYING A DIVERSITY OF MODES TO MEET ATM OBJECTIVES Having diverse modes of support available has benefited the atmospheric sciences. Finding: The committee finds that the diversity of activities and modes of support is a strength of the program and of our nation’s scientific system. The approach and vision outlined in NAS/NRC (1958) and the “Blue Book” (“UCAR,” 1959), which together mapped out the complementary roles of a large national center and the individual investigator university grants program, has served the atmospheric science community well and is the envy of many other scientific communities. The newer modes of support (i.e., multi-investigator awards, cooperative agreements, and centers sited at universities) reflect the maturation and increasing interdisciplinary nature of atmospheric sciences. The community input received to date supports this multifaceted approach. The present balance is approximately right and reflects the current needs of the community. Recommendation: ATM should continue to utilize the current mix of modes of support for a diverse portfolio of activities (i.e., research, observations and facilities, technology development, education, outreach, and applications). It is essential to preserve opportunities for high-risk, potentially transformative research. Finding: Among federal science agencies, NSF is a leader in its commitment to support high-risk, potentially transformative research (excluding satellite instrument development). This type of research is instrumental in making major advances in the field, as well as in sustaining the nation’s economic development and
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report global competitiveness. Currently, program directors have discretion to use 5 percent of their budgets for Small Grants for Exploratory Research projects, though typically about 1 to 2 percent of each program’s funds are applied this way. In addition, program directors can choose to support other high-risk work through regular grant mechanisms as they see fit. However, it is unknown to what extent this flexibility to support exploratory research is utilized. Furthermore, there may be some research questions of this type that require a bigger investment than what typically can be made by a program director. One option to be more effective is to pool some of the funding for exploratory research from all ATM programs and run an internal competition to which program directors can submit promising, high-risk ideas for consideration. Recommendation: ATM should support high-risk, potentially transformative research at the current rate or a greater one, seeking new mechanisms to enhance opportunities for investigators, such as pooling some of the existing funding. The success of this effort should be evaluated every five years. ENHANCING CROSS-DISCIPLINARY, INTERAGENCY, AND INTERNATIONAL COORDINATION Effective identification of cross-disciplinary opportunities and related funding mechanisms are critical to the health of the atmospheric sciences. Finding: Research questions in the subdisciplines of atmospheric science are interrelated. Further, many are connected to those in other scientific disciplines, such as oceanography, ecology, terrestrial science, solar physics, and social science. In some cases, the science questions extend beyond the boundaries of ATM or NSF’s Geosciences directorate. ATM does make efforts to foster cross-disciplinary research, for example, by partnering with other divisions to support individual proposals or jointly soliciting proposals on a topic that falls at their interface. Yet, some research questions that fall at the interface between two or more disciplines can challenge NSF’s funding structures even when evaluations show these to be prime opportunities for scientific advancement. Examples of the challenges faced in cross-disciplinary science include the need to address the water cycle, biogeochemical cycles, paleoclimate, air-sea fluxes, and health impacts of atmospheric oxidants and fine particles. Improving opportunities for cross-disciplinary research will require commitments from ATM and other NSF divisions that support related research. Recommendation: ATM should work to reduce institutional barriers within NSF to appropriate cross-disciplinary research.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report A more strategic approach is needed to facilitate interagency coordination. Finding: Despite compelling motivations for interagency coordination, ATM does not always have clear mechanisms for effectively facilitating such interactions. Some interagency coordination takes place through formalized interagency programs (e.g., Climate Change Science Program, National Space and Weather Program), interagency working groups, community-driven initiatives (e.g., Climate Variability and Change, [CLIVAR]), and ad hoc interactions between program directors. A strategic plan would both increase the transparency and decrease the ad hoc nature of NSF’s approach to these interagency collaborations. Another way to address this problem would be to facilitate the establishment of an interagency Federal Coordinator for Atmospheric Research. This individual would be supported by all relevant agencies, with duties and responsibilities similar to the role of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology, but with a focus on sustaining the overall health of basic research in atmospheric science by maintaining liaisons with all relevant agencies and identifying their contributions to atmospheric research. Other options for fostering interagency coordination could also be effective. Recommendation: ATM should be even more proactive in developing clear mechanisms for interagency collaborations. A more strategic approach is needed to facilitate international coordination. Finding: The atmosphere knows no national boundaries; thus, international collaboration is critical to the study of the atmosphere. The research capabilities of other nations are becoming more sophisticated and their investments in the atmospheric sciences are growing. There is a breadth of atmospheric research coordinated internationally through organizations such as the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), the International Geophysical-Biophysical Programme, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the Scientific Committee on Solar Terrestrial Physics. Often these international efforts address broad cross-disciplinary research agendas. ATM has been extensively involved in international efforts, but U.S. participation has been largely on an ad hoc basis. It is not clear that this ad hoc approach is desired in the future when pressure on ATM funding will likely increase. A proactive and judicious mechanism, including the ability to commit with long lead time the participation of U.S. facilities and investigators, is needed for coordinated, efficient, and effective participation in international programs. Such a mechanism would help U.S. investigators and international bodies more fully understand the basis for ATM funding decisions and hence plan accordingly. In particular, this mechanism would be useful for evaluating potential ATM involvement in international field campaigns; in this
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report case, existing international bodies (such as WCRP, the World Weather Research Program, and WMO) could help determine the merits of potential field campaigns Recommendation: ATM should develop systematic and clearly communicated procedures for tracking international program development, identifying potential ATM contributions, committing resources where appropriate, and reevaluating participation in international activities at regular intervals. SUPPORTING FIELD PROGRAMS, DATA ARCHIVES, AND DATA ANALYSIS Longer-term field programs have not received sufficient support. Finding: ATM has well-established mechanisms for supporting short-duration field programs. However, ATM has not yet clearly articulated mechanisms for supporting field programs that require continuous, longer-term (i.e., up to multiyear) deployment and observations not available from operational monitoring networks. This type of observation protocol is generally ill-suited to the existing funding opportunities, in part because they were prohibitively expensive until recently. Three factors motivate the need and appropriateness of this approach today: (1) these types of observations are especially critical to understanding the interaction between the atmosphere and Earth’s surface, which are growing areas of research and concern; (2) many instruments that would be used are less expensive, making it reasonable to deploy them in the field for longer durations; and (3) there are existing observational programs developed by other NSF divisions and agencies (e.g., Long Term Ecological Research, the Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks Ocean Observing Initiative, the proposed hydrological observatories of the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc.), which can be leveraged with additional investments to conduct atmospheric research. Recommendation: ATM, in coordination with other NSF divisions and federal agencies, should develop the explicit capability to support longer-term (i.e., up to multiyear) lower-atmosphere field programs to study atmospheric processes that are important on these timescales. Support for field data archives, visualization tool development, and analysis is not commensurate with the investment in obtaining the measurements. Finding: A longstanding challenge in the atmospheric sciences is providing sufficient support for scientists to analyze data obtained during field programs and from observational networks. Because analysis comes at the end of a field
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report program and competes against the start of other new field programs, it is at times subject to reduction in support. Thus, the full benefit from the investment in a field program often is not realized. Maximum benefit from many NSF-supported studies also would be facilitated by easy access to data from operational observational and monitoring networks (including surface, upper air, radar, and satellite) in addition to easy access to field-program data, historical data, and numerical model data. All these datasets should be archived and provided to the community in a manner consistent with common standards, along with the necessary analysis and visualization tools. In enhancing these capabilities, there are opportunities for NSF to work with other federal agencies who have faced similar challenges, particularly in terms of data archiving. Recommendation: ATM should maximize the benefit of field data by ensuring that archiving, visualization, and analysis activities are well supported and continue for many years after the completion of field campaigns. ATM is encouraged to work with the community by sponsoring a series of workshops on development of standards for metadata, data archival, and software tools and by providing support for the implementation of the recommendations of the workshops. PARTNERING WITH NATIONAL CENTERS Partnerships between university or private-sector scientists and existing and emerging national centers need to be strengthened. Finding: NCAR has a rich history of collaboration with university and private-sector scientists, particularly to make progress on large scientific problems that are beyond the reach of a single university department or private-sector laboratory. Whereas there are many opportunities for collaboration between NCAR and university or private-sector scientists, decisions about NCAR strategic initiatives (e.g., recent new efforts in biogeosciences and water) could benefit from broader community input. Indeed, because both NCAR and the broader atmospheric sciences community have grown in size and complexity, there are new challenges for the center in terms of maintaining a balance between inward- and outward-looking efforts. New challenges also exist in engaging a larger, more fragmented university and private-sector research community. This suggests that there may need to be additional new mechanisms to leverage the investment in a large center in a way that provides synergism with the needs of the university and private-sector research community. Collaborations between large national centers (both existing and emerging) and university or private-sector scientists could be enhanced by new mechanisms to stimulate joint research initiatives at a larger scale than existing ad hoc collaborations. For example, ATM could conduct a regular competition for collaborations
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report between NCAR and the outside community, focusing on research efforts that address important atmospheric science problems that are beyond the capability of single university departments or individual private-sector laboratories. The award should be significant, in excess of $1 million a year for five years. For initiatives that have large interdisciplinary scope, ATM could seek mechanisms for shared funding with other NSF divisions. Recommendation: ATM should encourage new modes of partnership between the university and private-sector research community and the large national center. DEVELOPING A STRATEGIC PLAN FOR ATM ATM has not published a strategic plan to guide its activities in the coming years. A community-based strategic planning effort could provide a means by which ATM can advance the preceding recommendations. For example, the strategic plan should address the objectives of improved interdisciplinary collaboration (Recommendation 2); opportunities for high-risk, potentially transformative research (Recommendation 3); enhanced interagency and international coordination (Recommendations 4 and 5, respectively); and the planning of field programs (Recommendation 6). Strategic plans can take many different forms, ranging from describing a mission and fairly high-level goals for a program to providing more details about implementation. At a minimum the strategic plan recommended here should clearly articulate ATM’s mission and goals in the context of the multidisciplinary, multiagency, and multinational environment of atmospheric research. However, the committee envisions ATM’s strategic plan going beyond providing a set of goals to include actions on how to attain the goals, although not prescribing in great detail the specifics of implementation. Rather, it should address practical implementation challenges, such as interagency relations, international relations, and university relations with NCAR. Further, the plan should put flexible structures in place that will give ATM a means for making decisions about prioritization, for example, in response to pressures resulting from an evolving budgetary environment, competing international initiatives, and multiple demands for facilities. Having a strategic plan in place may call for a reorganization of ATM to direct staff and resources in a way that may better address emerging challenges. Furthermore, the balance of modes should evolve in the future in a manner that is consistent with strategic planning efforts. The committee believes that the strategic plan itself will be useful to ATM, but the process of producing it may prove even more valuable, particularly if it is conducted with ample and transparent community engagement. The committee envisions the strategic planning process as providing a mechanism for the community as a whole to participate in an active conversation about the direction of the field and where best to use resources, while remaining sensitive to the
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report societal expectations of that research. Thus, the strategic plan must be flexible and responsive and developed by the science community in collaboration with ATM management. Ideally, the process of developing the strategic plan would be simple, revisited at regular intervals, and eventually ingrained in the ATM culture. A strategic plan will be essential to maintain a balanced, effective portfolio in an evolving programmatic environment. Finding: We are now in a phase of rapid change in graduate education demographics, the role of the United States in the global atmospheric science community, potentially the role of NSF in national atmospheric science funding, and the maturation and interdisciplinary growth of atmospheric science, as well as a likely period of constrained budgets. GEO (2000) represents a broad strategic plan for the NSF Geosciences Directorate and reflects the considerable evolution of the geophysical scientific enterprise. Yet, ATM has not developed its own strategic plan. Given the changing programmatic environment, ATM should take a more proactive approach to strategic planning. A flexible strategic plan developed with ample community input will enable determination of the appropriate balance of activities and modes of support in the ATM portfolio; help plan for large or long-term investments; facilitate appropriate allocation of resources to interdisciplinary, interagency, and international research efforts; and ensure that the United States will continue to be a leader in atmospheric research. In addition, a strategic planning effort that effectively engages the community will enhance the transparency of the rationale behind ATM’s decisions. Recommendation: ATM should engage the community in the development of a strategic plan, to be revisited at regular intervals, and should rethink its programmatic organization in light of this plan.
Representative terms from entire chapter: