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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report 1 Introduction The scientific method is applied in a fundamentally different fashion in atmospheric and geophysical sciences than in the laboratory-based physical sciences (i.e., physics, chemistry, etc.). This is a consequence of these laboratory-based sciences being able to perform experiments in a laboratory setting where individual parameters can be varied in a controlled manner to test experimental evidence against predictions from theory. In contrast, nature provides only single realizations that are, by and large, beyond our control. Therefore, the scientific method is applied by continually testing theoretical predictions or simulations of system parameters against observations of these same parameters. By iteratively comparing model results with observations and improving understanding of individual processes, representations of natural physical processes in mathematical models of physical systems, such as the atmosphere, the ocean, or the climate system, are continually improved, thereby yielding improved agreement between models and observations. An ultimate test occurs when these models are used to predict future behavior of natural systems and are tested against observations. Better predictions imply better understanding and representation of the natural system, but success should be measured against the inherent mathematical predictability of the system. Thus, in the laboratory-based sciences, application of the scientific method implies the interplay between laboratory experiments and theory, whereas in the atmospheric sciences, the interplay is between iterative models (conceptual or mathematical) and observations. There are a few examples of atmospheric research that can be done with the more traditional scientific method. They include laboratory measurements of reaction rates of atmospheric species and scaled-
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report down models of air flow, but these do not form the bulk of today’s atmospheric research. Atmospheric observations can come from routine weather observations, special field programs of relatively short duration, long-term research observations, and climate observing systems. The strategies for conducting atmospheric research are determined by such considerations of how the scientific method is applied. ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES AT 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. The Division of Atmospheric Sciences (ATM) supports research to develop new understanding of Earth’s atmosphere and how the Sun impacts it, as illustrated in the organizational chart for the division (Figure 1-1). Over the past six years, ATM has devoted about 30 percent of its budget to supporting the Lower Atmospheric Research Section, 16 percent to the Upper Atmospheric Research Section, 42 percent to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and Lower Atmospheric Facilities Oversight Section, FIGURE 1-1 Organizational chart for ATM.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report and the remaining 12 percent to other activities (including Science and Technology Centers, cross-directorate funding, special activities within the Geosciences Directorate, and the division-wide account for midsize infrastructure). ATM’s total budget for these activities in 2004 was $238.8 million. 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 (see also Box 1-1). About 65 percent of the ATM’s budget is for science research projects and 35 percent for facility support (Figure 1-2). BOX 1-1 Clarification of Terminology The committee is asked to evaluate the “activities” and “modes of support” ATM uses to achieve its goals for supporting the atmospheric sciences. For the purposes of this report, the committee defines these terms as follows: Goals: The overarching objectives of NSF in supporting the atmospheric sciences, including cutting-edge research, education and workforce development, service to society, computational and observational objectives, and data management. Activities: The pursuits taken to achieve the goals, including theoretical and laboratory research, field measurement programs, technology development, education and workforce programs, product development, and outreach. Modes of support: The programmatic tools NSF employs to support the activities, including support for individual or multiple principal investigators (PIs), small centers, large national centers, cooperative agreements to support facilities, and interagency programs. Occasionally in this report, “approaches” is used to refer to the collection of activities and modes of support. There are ambiguities in classifying some efforts as activities versus modes of support. For example, field programs are discussed both as an activity that is typically supported by a collection of grants to individual or multiple PIs and as a mode of support because NSF has developed some mechanisms specifically for facilitating field programs.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report FIGURE 1-2 Expenditure balance for ATM in FY 2004; total is $238.8 million. PRINCIPLES FOR SUCCESSFUL SUPPORT OF THE ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES The committee’s preliminary evaluation of ATM’s evolution over the past 45 years and current activities, as discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, has revealed that the division has done a good job in meeting its mission to support the atmospheric sciences. In particular, there have been significant advances in answering fundamental scientific questions about the atmosphere, in utilizing new knowledge of the atmosphere to address societally relevant applications, and in educating a workforce to advance the science and its application. This conclusion was also the clear consensus of the many members of the broad atmospheric sciences community who have provided input to the committee’s deliberations thus far. The committee has identified a set of 10 principles that have enabled ATM to be successful over the past 45 years. Continuing to strive to meet these principles should ensure that the division remains strong in the coming decades. A robust set of principles can be used as a framework for making funding decisions in an understandable and describable way. Such clarity is of benefit in times of expanding or declining budgets. The committee notes that all principles are not equal and that they should be applied differently depending upon the context.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report High Quality. The division has maintained a high level of quality in the research it funds. This has been achieved through rigorous competition, strong peer review, and close working relationships between ATM program officers and members of the research community. In the case of STCs, the enforcement of a “sunset date” for the centers is generally viewed as positive, and has led to evolution that allows the centers to address cutting-edge research questions. This high level of quality is essential to the continued success of ATM. Flexibility. ATM will be better able to meet its objectives of supporting the atmospheric science research community if it has the flexibility to apply different modes and create new modes to address evolving needs. This flexibility is essential, given the evolving roles of other federal agencies, the private sector, and the international research efforts. Responsiveness. ATM’s success over the past decades reflects in part a commitment to being responsive to the needs of the research community. Indeed, NSF’s support of the atmospheric sciences is particularly important in this regard because it is the main federal agency that supports high-risk, potentially transformative research, except, of course, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) satellite-based research. Balance. Atmospheric science comprises many subdisciplines—ranging from dynamic meteorology to climate change and from atmospheric chemistry to upper atmospheric dynamics and solar physics—and is inherently interdisciplinary in that the atmosphere interacts with the oceans, land surface, and near-space environment. Furthermore, the research efforts span the spectrum from fundamental research to efforts with direct applications. A portfolio that addresses the range of these research objectives and utilizes the range of modes of support in a balanced way is essential. Interagency Partnerships. Research in the atmospheric sciences benefits from the relevance of weather, climate, and air quality to multiple federal agencies that support some extramural research. These agencies include NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, and Department of Defense. Building effective partnerships with other agencies that have shared priorities is critical to the long-term health of the field. Connections to International Communities. Other nations support significant research in the atmospheric sciences, offering excellent opportunities for collaboration. ATM should maintain connections to international efforts both through engagement directly with other nations and through international programs to coordinate research (e.g., WCRP, World Weather Research Program). Robust Research Community. The atmospheric sciences research community includes professors and other permanent university research staff, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students, staff at centers (i.e., large national centers, STCs, engineering research centers), and private-sector researchers.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report Some stability in the support for this research community and for the training of new scientists is critical for the continuing strength of the atmospheric sciences. Community Input. Opportunities for the broad atmospheric science community to provide input in defining strategic directions for NSF’s programs helps strengthen the scientific foundation of the research endeavor and builds community support. Access to Necessary Resources. The atmospheric research community needs access to appropriate observing and computational facilities. In many cases, these facilities can be shared by multiple researchers. Furthermore, resources are needed to ensure adequate time for analysis and synthesis of field campaign results. High-Quality Staff. The atmospheric sciences research community has benefited from the consistent professionalism and dedication of ATM staff over the past decades. Maintaining and renewing high-quality ATM staff with keen understanding of current scientific frontiers is essential to continued success of the field. LOOKING FORWARD TO THE COMMITTEE’S FINAL REPORT In fall 2006, the committee will issue its final report that responds to its charge in full. To prepare the final report, the committee will continue to gather information and to deliberate on the questions in its charge. In addition, the committee hopes that this interim report sparks community input on the findings and recommendations presented as well as on the questions it leaves unanswered. Input from the community is especially important in considering how ATM’s activities may need to evolve to meet future challenges. Some major questions that the committee intends to address in the final report include the following: Should the balance among the modes of support evolve in response to the changing research environment and, if so, in what way? Should the balance of support among different disciplines evolve to reflect changing research priorities? Should there be an evolution in the balance of support between research that is curiosity-driven and that which is motivated by broader societal objectives? What are the implications of the shift in recent decades toward a larger fraction of grants being awarded to multi-investigator projects? What are the implications of a shift in recent decades toward a larger fraction of the ATM budget being used to support facilities? How can ATM best support supercomputing, particularly in terms of balancing centralized and distributed facilities? Are there new approaches that ATM could employ to better facilitate interdisciplinary, interagency, and international coordination?
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences: An Interim Report How can ATM best support research on phenomena that operate on timescales much longer than normal NSF grants? Are there new approaches that ATM could employ to better meet its goals for education and workforce development? How can ATM ensure and encourage the broadest participation and involvement of atmospheric researchers (including underrepresented populations) at a variety of institutions? How should ATM engage the atmospheric research community in the development, execution, and evolution of its strategic plan? As is discussed in the next chapters, the committee has conducted preliminary evaluations of the various modes of support ATM employs to enable a range of research and related activities in the atmospheric sciences. On the basis of this analysis, the committee believes that the balance is about right to address current needs. However, given ongoing and anticipated changes in the atmospheric research environment—including demographics, globalization, and the growth of interagency and interdisciplinary research—it is possible, and even likely, that this balance will need to shift. The evolving balance among the modes will be a focus of the committee’s final report. Finally, the committee notes that several findings and recommendations are offered in this interim report. This guidance is intended to point to broad areas where attention by NSF is warranted to improve support for the atmospheric sciences. In most cases, specific recommendations about how to tackle these challenges are not provided, largely because the committee feels that further deliberation is needed to develop carefully considered courses of action. As appropriate, the final report will provide more detailed recommendations.
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