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Dr. Wakimoto goes to Washington

NCAR’s ninth director prepares to join NSF

February 5, 2012 | This spring Roger Wakimoto will be eyeing cherry blossoms instead of cottonwood blooms. Roger came to NCAR in 2005 from the University of California, Los Angeles, to head up EOL. In 2010, he succeeded Eric Barron as NCAR director.

Now he’s heading to NSF to serve as the assistant director for geosciences (GEO), effective February 21. The job—a four-year “rotator” appointment—involves responsibility for nearly $1.3 billion in NSF-supported geoscience research at institutions across the nation.

An all-staff farewell party for Roger is set for February 13; see the Staff Notes Daily announcement for details. NCAR has launched a website with information on the search for Roger’s successor.

Staff News recently sat down with Roger to discuss his NCAR tenure and his new job. 

Three portraits of Roger Wakimoto
Roger Wakimoto (©UCAR. Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

SN: What appeals to you about the NSF position?

RW: It’s the same sort of challenge I felt when I came here at NCAR—to oversee an organization, hopefully push it in the right directions, and learn about areas that I wasn’t familiar with. I’m a severe storms expert, but at NCAR I was able to learn more about climate, atmospheric chemistry, societal impacts, and many other topics. Now at GEO I’ve got to learn more about oceans, polar programs, etc.

I’ve always had some exposure to these topics, at UCLA and to a certain extent here, but essentially it’s a whole new challenge, and I’m quite excited.

One fundamental difference is that here at NCAR I oversee a research institute, and now I’ll oversee an organization that funds research.

SN: What do you expect to focus on in your first few months?

RW: I want to spend a large fraction of my time interacting extensively with NSF divisions, especially the ones that I’m less familiar with. I’m going to try to meet with the program officers and section heads as well as the division directors, to understand their programs, what’s going really well, some of their stresses.

SN: What is your sense of how university faculty see the NSF grants process these days? There seems to be ever-increasing competition.

RW: Certainly, the budgets have gotten more difficult. At least from the NSF perspective, that means one of two things: you allocate the same number of grants with less money for each, or you allocate fewer grants for the same amount of funding. I think the solutions differ across each division, but there’s always stress in the community around this. Obviously, if you’re one of the awardees, it’s great; if you’re not one of the awardees, or if there’s a significant cut to what you’ve traditionally gotten in the past, it’s not good.

SN: Your position normally involves oversight of NCAR funding, but you’ll be recused from those duties for a period of time to avoid conflict of interest, correct?

RW: That’s right. The period is 12 months, so next February, if all goes well, I will be able to fully engage with the UCAR and NCAR community again.

SN: People in rotator positions such as yours usually have an Intergovernmental Personnel Act assignment in which they’re “on loan” from their home institution to NSF. What will your status be?

RW: I feel it doesn’t serve NCAR and UCAR or my colleagues in the community if I am just on an extended leave, so I’m actually quitting NCAR. I’m hoping to transfer my IPA to join the research faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder. If things are coordinated right, I will start at NSF and CU on the same day. And four years from now—maybe for the first time since I’ve been a graduate student—I don’t know what my next job will be. If I needed a little adrenaline rush, there’s one for you, but at this stage I’m not concerned about it. 

A large wall cloud arcs around a rotating thunderstorm updraft on June 6, 2010, near Ogalalla, Nebraska
A large wall cloud arcs around a rotating thunderstorm updraft. This storm was documented by Roger Wakimoto and other participants in the VORTEX2 (Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment 2) field campaign on June 6, 2010, near Ogallala, Nebraska. (UCAR Digital Image Library photo by Roger Wakimoto.)

SN: Assuming you’ll have this IPA with CU, will you be doing some of your tornado research through them?

RW: What’s very nice about rotator positions is that NSF gives you up to 50 research days per year, including conferences. I’m going to make a request to use a good fraction of those 50 days to attend conferences, but I’m also going to ask if I can get out in the field for a couple of weeks in the springtime, purely for research. So you might once again see me out in the field.

SN: Do you still feel the same excitement about field work that you did when you started out working with Ted Fujita as a graduate student at the University of Chicago?

RW: All my tornado sightings have been related to field projects. I get the most excited knowing that I have a tremendous data set that will allow me to go back and analyze the case. I know that some storm chasers might not like to hear this, but I get less excited at just taking a photograph of a tornado. For me, that is not enough. 

SN: What stands out when you look back on your time at NCAR?

RW: It’s just been incredible. It’s been an honor to oversee an organization as prominent and prestigious as NCAR. Some people have asked, “Wasn’t it tough to be director during three of the most difficult budget years in its history?” Clearly, it was hard, and I had to make some difficult decisions, but it was still a great opportunity. If I could roll the clock back three years, I still would have taken the job. I’ve tried hard to do what I felt was best for the center, and we’ve accomplished some great things. It’s going to be difficult leaving, and probably three years is a little shorter than I would have liked. But doors open and doors close in terms of opportunities, and if I hadn’t taken this one, it probably would have been gone.

SN: You moved east from UCLA when you joined NCAR, and now you’re moving east again to join NSF.

RW: I guess I’m like an unstable parcel, accelerating eastward. If I were stable, I’d have to oscillate back west. Maybe this means my next job is going to be in Europe!

SN: Any advice for the next director of NCAR? 

RW: I don’t feel that one needs to provide advice to people succeeding you. They will make their own decisions. I’m confident that the next NCAR director will do really well and doesn’t need me to provide any advice. What’s obvious is that it’s a great job with a great staff—not only in the directorate but throughout NCAR as a whole.

SN: What qualities do you think make for a good lab or institute director?

RW: You need to be even keeled. Nothing is the end of the world. Yes, you make very difficult decisions, but tomorrow the sun will rise, and it will also set, and there will be another day. As long as you have the right advice, and you do what you fundamentally believe is the best you can do, you should feel comfortable sleeping at night.