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January 28, 2010 | Last year, HAO scientist Phil Judge undertook the role of NCAR's Science Advisor—and survived to tell the tale. With his term ending in February, the NCAR Scientists' Assembly (NSA) is seeking a member to begin the new term, starting in March, as Science Advisor. For more information, check the NSA website or Careers at UCAR. Applications are due February 10.
I am not especially accident prone, but about a year ago I slipped into a situation that I had not anticipated. It turned out to be a most fortunate and interesting diversion from my dyed-in-the-wool physicist activities. I became the NSA Science Advisor (SA) for 2009–2010. I had no real idea what would be involved, but I had lots of preconceptions about the "Dark Side" of NCAR—the dreaded administration.
It was with fear and trepidation therefore that I entered the arena—NCAR's Executive Committee—early in 2009. I girded my loins and readied myself to become an ambassador. Spock, fighting the good fight for the Federation in the face of the forces of evil that govern the rise and fall of the NCAR staff. It immediately became clear, though, that to my embarrassment, if I were to "fight the good fight" I would become instead a sad quixotic knight in rusting armor who would be chasing windmills on the plains of an imagination driven wild by the rumor mill that is NCAR. I had not joined the Dark Side because, as I came to understand, there is no Dark Side. Instead, I was given the privilege of joining a group of people who have heavy responsibilities, but who earnestly believe in NCAR and work with integrity to make the organization work and work well. Furthermore, they do their work behind the scenes without much expectation of gratitude or laurels, in the best interests of the NCAR staff.
Those of you who know me will no doubt be as surprised at these words as I am myself! During the interview for the position (by the NSA Executive Committee, to whom the SA reports) I confess that I expressed quite the opposite kinds of sentiment.
The burdens of the NCAR Executive Committee are heavy and the decisions made consequential. As science advisor, one debates how to spend the budget, helps determine policy, assesses new big ideas for research, interfaces with NSF, and more. This boring list does not and cannot reflect the challenges—intellectual, financial, legal, political, and simply practical—that the committee faces every couple of weeks. I was quite gripped by many of the issues involved. Sometimes I felt akin to a highly respected Trades Union leader (such people used to exist), indeed fighting for the cause of science at NCAR (with a small "s"). I confess that I indulged this part of my overly developed British working-class character from time to time.
The most rewarding part of my experience as SA was that I was plainly treated as an equal on the committee. This is the case in spite of a bumpy start, where my misconceptions produced some manifestly idiotic comments. However, I did my best to represent the NSA's majority opinions as well and as plainly as possible, and never felt ignored. In fact, it turned out that several of the committee members felt, much to my surprise, that I had made some useful contributions. Eric Barron expressed openly that he really appreciated my "forthrightness" as SA. I think this is perhaps a good quality for the SA. It is to be hoped, in my view, that the next NCAR director can maintain the very high level of the bar that Eric has set during his tenure, by continuing to work in his open, communicative manner. Eric's style is exemplified by the collegial way the Workforce Management Plan was researched and implemented. Such open processes build trust among staff and management, and I for one am grateful for it.
Of course, many diverse decisions were made in which my views were not the predominant ones. I often reminded myself that my job is not only to represent the NCAR staff, but perhaps more importantly, to help spend in a responsible manner the taxpayers' money that is so generously bestowed upon us. By being accountable to the people living in my neighborhood, I found this helped clarify some difficult issues. In the end, the important thing was not the final outcome of some decisions, but the fact that NCAR's science staff has real representation and some say in its own future. This is a wonderful privilege given to us under Tim Killeen's leadership and continued by Eric Barron. It is not to be underestimated, in my view.
Although the position is, for practical reasons, restricted to staff with senior status, I recommend that junior staff pay attention to the position by both talking to the current SA and considering applying for the position when, as many junior staff do, they become senior staff members. I found it a very rewarding, outstanding experience for any one interested in managing or directing scientific research in any arena, and intellectually challenging. I can recommend all active senior staff to consider this 50% position. After all, the cup will be half full to start with—you also save your division/lab half of your salary for an entire year.