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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation‘s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences Summary The reach of atmospheric science extends beyond its foundation in meteorology to encompass a broad range of scholarly pursuits, many with immediate societal relevance. Understanding the atmosphere is fundamental to forecasting severe storms, improving air quality, responding to climate change, and anticipating intense solar storms, among other societal objectives. Today’s environmental challenges increasingly require knowledge of how the atmosphere interacts with the oceans, the land surface, the space environment, and with human society. The past 50 years have brought impressive advances in our understanding of atmospheric processes and in our ability to anticipate and prepare for weather and climate events. An ever-expanding suite of observational and computational tools are enabling scientists to look at the atmosphere in entirely new ways. Yet, the opportunities and imperative to advance atmospheric science are more important than ever, especially in the face of changing environmental conditions and even greater societal demand for relevant information and services. The fact that the Earth’s atmosphere is by and large beyond our experimental control fundamentally shapes how atmospheric research is conducted. Improving our knowledge about the atmosphere thus requires a strategy that balances multiple approaches and facilitates the interplay among them. Atmospheric scientists use a mix of direct observations, analysis of these observations, laboratory experiments, numerical modeling, and theory. Ensuring the continued vitality of all of these research methodologies is critical for advancing our understanding of the atmosphere. Likewise, the atmosphere is intimately connected to many other parts of the Earth–Sun system, requiring atmospheric scientists to increasingly
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation‘s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences seek collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, for example, with solar physicists who examine how solar variability may impact the atmosphere, ecologists who investigate the impact of climate change on terrestrial and marine ecosystems, soil scientists who study gas exchange with the atmosphere, or oceanographers who probe how ocean variability drives the climate system. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Division of Atmospheric Sciences (ATM) supports research to develop new understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere and the dynamic Sun. In addition, ATM supports activities to enhance education at all levels, the diversity of the scientific community, and outreach to the public. ATM has asked the National Academies to perform a study that will guide the division’s strategy for achieving its goals in the atmospheric sciences (see Appendix A for full statement of task). In response, the Committee on Strategic Guidance for NSF’s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences was formed and subsequently authored an interim report released in fall 2005 and this, its final report. The committee reviewed the accomplishments of the atmospheric sciences over the last few decades; it discussed the evolution of the scientific, societal, and institutional context in which atmospheric research is conducted; and it responded to this invitation to offer some guidance on how NSF can best support the atmospheric sciences into the future. The committee found that ATM is operating in an environment that is ever more cross-disciplinary, interagency, and international, necessitating a more strategic approach to managing their activities in a way that actively engages the atmospheric sciences community. At the same time, ATM must preserve opportunities for basic research, especially projects that are high risk, potentially transformative, or unlikely to be supported by other government agencies. Finally, ATM needs to be proactive in attracting highly talented students to the atmospheric sciences as an investment in the ability to make future breakthroughs. These issues are of importance to ATM broadly, and thus the committee chose to highlight them in this summary. One important and especially challenging aspect of the committee’s charge was to assess the balance among the modes of support employed by ATM. The committee defines balance as the evolving diversity of modes and approaches to ensure the overall health of the enterprise; the use of the word balance does not imply a specific percentage to any particular component. ATM employs a range of modes of support for its 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. The committee finds that the diversity of activities and modes of support are
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation‘s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences strengths of the program and of our nation’s scientific infrastructure. 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, including multi-investigator awards, cooperative agreements, and centers sited at universities, complement the previously established modes. The present balance is approximately right and reflects the current needs of the community. RECOMMENDATION: ATM should continue to utilize the current set of modes of support for a diverse portfolio of activities. The nation is 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, during what is likely to be a period of constrained budgets. There are now more atmospheric scientists than ever before, doing more diverse and often cross-disciplinary work, at a time when federal opportunities for basic research proposals in the atmospheric sciences are down. Of particular concern is decreasing funding for basic atmospheric research by federal agencies other than NSF, forcing more and more of the community to turn to ATM for basic research funding. This proposal pressure will likely be accompanied by continued demand for investments in observing and computational facilities. Without significant increases in ATM’s budget, purchasing these facilities will require trade-offs between investments in “tools” at the expense of funding scientists to conduct research when in truth both will be necessary to advance the atmospheric sciences. A strategic plan will be essential if ATM is to maintain a balanced, effective portfolio in an evolving programmatic environment. A flexible strategic plan developed by ATM staff 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 atmospheric science community will enhance the broad understanding of the rationale behind ATM decisions. The committee understands that the Geosciences Directorate (GEO) is revisiting its strategic plan and urges ATM to coordinate its efforts with those of the directorate. Indeed, the development of a strategic
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation‘s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences plan for ATM is an excellent opportunity to identify important connections with GEO and with many other parts of NSF, including the Biological Sciences Directorate, the Engineering Directorate, and the Education and Human Resources Directorate. Ideally, the process of developing a strategic plan should be straightforward and revisited at regular intervals. Furthermore, the balance of modes should evolve in the future in a manner that is consistent with strategic planning efforts. RECOMMENDATION: ATM should engage the atmospheric sciences community in the development of a strategic plan, to be revisited at regular intervals. Periodic external guidance could help ATM ensure that its activities are continually evolving in a way that meets the needs of the broad atmospheric sciences community. At regular intervals of every five to ten years, an advisory mechanism that engages the broad atmospheric sciences community, with an emphasis on obtaining balanced, objective input, could be quite effective. Some of the issues that such a process could address include the balance and relationships among the range of scientific and societally driven research avenues, among the various modes of support employed by the division, particularly regarding potential inequities in resource distribution between large research centers or facilities and individual investigators, and among the various subdisciplines in atmospheric research. RECOMMENDATION: ATM should seek strategic guidance from a panel that includes representation from the fields it supports at regular intervals to ensure that its programs are well balanced and continue to meet the needs of the atmospheric sciences community. With the increasing importance of cross-disciplinary, interagency, and international research to the advancement of the atmospheric sciences, scientists need help to navigate cross-disciplinary, interagency, and international boundaries and overcome the many challenges to successfully finding the support for such work. NSF ATM’s public interface, its Web site (http://www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?div=ATM), provides potential Principal Investigators information on specific, active funding opportunities. However, the ATM Web site does not specifically encourage or guide those who would seek to grow or obtain funding for participation in an interdisciplinary, interagency, or international research program. It lacks any discussion of how to establish a dialog with ATM toward that end and then how links between the ATM and other divisions of NSF, other agencies, or research programs in other countries should be pursued.
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation‘s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences RECOMMENDATION: ATM should encourage and guide scientists seeking support to participate in cross-disciplinary, interagency, and international research by developing guidelines and procedures for the process by which individuals and the community initiate a dialog about such research opportunities and then following up with submission of formal proposals. High-risk, potentially transformative research is instrumental in making major advances in the atmospheric sciences. Thus, it is essential to continually preserve and renew opportunities for this type of research. Among federal science agencies, NSF is a leader in its commitment to support high-risk, potentially transformative basic research. Yet, as modes of support that require larger investments have expanded, and as peer reviewers tend to be risk averse, the opportunities for such funding are perceived as having declined. The atmospheric sciences would benefit if ATM expanded its support of such projects. It is difficult to identify specific steps to address this need, but the situation is sufficiently crucial that ATM should seek new approaches. For example, ATM might consider instituting an explicit solicitation for high-risk research, which would allow these proposals to be judged with more appropriate criteria, make it clear to the research community that the division welcomes such proposals, and ensure that program managers proactively consider supporting high-risk projects. A target of about 10 such grants per year is reasonable, although it is important to realize that opportunities for transformative research may not come every year and sometimes come in spurts. Such an effort might be undertaken as a pilot program and reevaluated after several years to see if it did indeed result in breakthrough concepts frequently enough to be worth continuing. RECOMMENDATION: ATM should increase the opportunities for targeted grants in support of high-risk, potentially transformative research. Recruiting and training gifted scientists is perhaps the single most important way to enable the atmospheric sciences to advance more quickly on many research fronts that are important to our nation and the rest of the world. Because relatively few undergraduate programs offer degrees in the atmospheric sciences, talented students may be unaware of career opportunities in the field. Given the societal importance of atmospheric science and the significant national investment in an excellent university infrastructure, a large national center, and other laboratories and institutions, the committee believes that increased efforts to attract more bright students into the field are warranted. In the past, NCAR has offered a fellowship program
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Strategic Guidance for the National Science Foundation‘s Support of the Atmospheric Sciences for graduate students. This effort could be revitalized and expanded as an ATM–universities–NCAR cooperative effort. Such a program could offer graduate student fellows (1) multiyear stipends similar to those for NSF graduate research fellowships and (2) a summer program, conducted jointly by NCAR and the universities near the beginning of the students’ graduate studies, to acquaint students with available facilities and research opportunities. A program of this sort, sized to support about 20 new students per year at U.S. universities and advertised widely to undergraduates in related scientific majors (e.g., physics, chemistry, applied math), could be a powerful tool for recruiting top students to the atmospheric sciences. RECOMMENDATION: ATM should establish a new university– NCAR graduate fellowship program to attract a larger share of the world’s brightest students into Ph.D. programs in the atmospheric sciences. Looking forward, ATM faces the need to marshal a wide range of scientific talents to address the rich intellectual landscape of the atmospheric sciences. The range of the discipline has never been greater and its potential to address many issues of great importance to society has never been more obvious. Chapter 6 of this report includes many additional recommendations for effectively using NSF’s resources to advance the atmospheric sciences, from developing new observational tools, making the best use of investments in field programs, and ensuring access to supercomputing resources, to effectively utilizing centers and training the next generation of atmospheric scientists. If ATM continues evolving to meet new challenges, it will be well positioned to advance our understanding of the atmosphere and to apply this knowledge to many issues of societal importance.
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