A center is born

It took years of toil to build NCAR’s sandstone-hued Mesa Laboratory. What’s less obvious is the intellectual heft that was required to create and cultivate the center as a human institution. From the start, scientists and administrators engaged in lively debate about how NCAR would be staffed and structured and how it could best interact with the universities that were integral to its existence.

Photo of Walter Orr Roberts and I.M.Pei
NCAR director Walter Orr Roberts shares a moment with architect I.M.Pei at the dedication of the Mesa Lab in May 1967.

The work began in 1956, when a National Research Council committee was asked to “consider and recommend means by which to increase our understanding and control of the atmosphere.” At the time, civilian and military forecasters far outnumbered researchers who focused on weather and climate. Weather research was itself fragmented and underfunded, as noted by the committee in a 1958 report that recommended creation of a “National Institute for Atmospheric Research,” or NIAR, to be funded by NSF.

Within weeks, the heads of 10 leading academic departments of meteorology had convened to take up the NRC’s challenge. Their meeting was followed by a flurry of reports and more than a dozen workshops, involving some 150 scientists, that laid out the contours for what would become NCAR. Among the key ideas was that the center would help researchers join forces to tackle the most intractable research problems. The center would also provide access to tools that no single school could afford, such as aircraft and high-end computers. A 1959 planning document pictured “a center at which high scientific competence and consummate technological skill can be combined in a free and natural alliance to master our atmospheric environment.”

As the scope of the future center broadened, the need for long-term leadership deepened. With the blessing of their university leaders, the department heads decided to incorporate as a nonprofit consortium, and on 16 March 1959, UCAR was born. Major questions remained, though. “The formation of UCAR was met with skepticism, like many things that happen in science,” said founding trustee Horace Byers (University of Chicago) in a 1987 interview. Persevering, Byers and colleagues refined their brainchild, shifting an initial emphasis on technology toward a mix of facilities and research and changing the name from NIAR to NCAR.

People in an old computer room
During the early years of NCAR's computing facility, computer programs were punched into decks of cards and hand-delivered to the computer room.

Much of the character of the new center—officially launched in June 1960—emerged from the influence of its founding director and its location. To lead the center, UCAR chose Walter Orr Roberts, an astronomer who had studied the solar corona from Colorado since the 1940s (see page 9). As head of the High Altitude Observatory (then housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder), Roberts made a fateful proposal: he would serve as UCAR president and NCAR director if the institution set up shop in Boulder, one of four locations being considered, and brought HAO into the fold.

That agreement brought unexpected benefits. With its own staff and administration in place, HAO served as a nucleus from which NCAR could easily expand. Boulder’s relatively central location proved convenient for researchers across the country. And Roberts himself—informal and egalitarian, internationally minded, concerned with science’s role in society—set an upbeat tone for the institution. “He assumed everyone he talked with to be capable of understanding science and other complex ideas,” recalled Harriet Barker, who started as a secretary in 1960 and retired as a UCAR vice president in 1998.

Top scientists flocked to the new center, and a program was quickly established to bring graduate students and postdoctoral researchers on site for intensive visits. By the mid-1960s, NCAR was hosting workshops on topics such as satellites and tropical meteorology and had launched research programs delving into cloud physics, the life cycle of airborne gases and particles, and the atmosphere’s global circulation. UCAR grew as well, restructuring to allow more universities to join; a total of 30 were on board by 1970, including the University of Toronto, the first non–U.S. member.

The opening of the Mesa Lab in May 1967 was a fitting capstone to NCAR’s coming of age. For his first major project outside an urban area, architect I.M. Pei captured the flavor of indigenous settlements of the southwest United States with a design that was monumental and modern, yet harmonious with its surroundings. “When you’re confronted with nature—such power and beauty—you just don’t try to compete with it,” said Pei at the building’s dedication. “You try to join with it.”


Today — Cultivating tomorrow’s faculty leaders

Photo of Judith Berner

"The Junior Faculty Forum is a unique opportunity for young scientists."

—Judith Berner, NCAR

Early-career faculty must juggle publishing and teaching demands while keeping tabs on an ever-broader range of specialties and intersecting disciplines. With these stresses in mind, NCAR’s traditional role as a resource and meeting place for university scientists has taken on a new flavor.

Since 2006, UCAR has sponsored more than 100 junior-faculty visits to the annual UCAR meeting, held each October in Boulder. And each summer since 2003, dozens of pre-tenured faculty—most of them in their first five years as professors—have gathered at NCAR for a three-day Junior Faculty Forum on Future Scientific Directions. Sponsored by NCAR’s Early Career Scientist Assembly, the forum gives newer university faculty and NCAR scientists a chance to strengthen professional ties as they explore a topic of mutual interest. Recent forums have delved into such areas as the Atlantic thermohaline circulation and the impacts of biomass burning.

Photo of a group of people in front of Flatirons
Participants in the 2009 Junior Faculty Forum. (Photo by Kathleen Barney, NCAR.)

“The informal setting allows for creative interactions and discussions about out-of-the-box ideas, with input from a few senior scientists,” says NCAR’s Judith Berner. She worked with Adam Monahan (University of Victoria) to organize the 2009 forum on the connections between weather and climate. Among other topics, participants explored how precipitation that runs close to average over a long period can encompass shorter intervals of destructive drought and flooding. They also pondered how analyzing the vast array of data generated by short-term weather models might be used to relate a longer-term global climate projection to possible weather events in a particular region.

Photo of Peter Huybers
VSP postdoc Peter Huybers, now at Harvard University, recieved a MacArthur "genius grant" fellowship in 2009. (Photo courtesy MacArthur Foundation.)

Just a few months later, participants had already submitted a joint paper on these topics to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. “The most important outcome is probably the collaborations that will happen over the next years and decades,”adds Berner.

The Junior Faculty Forum is part of NCAR’s Advanced Study Program, founded in 1964 to bolster the ranks of atmospheric researchers through graduate and postdoctoral appointments. ASP allows participants to carve new research paths across NCAR’s broad array of specialties. Close to 500 scientists have spent one to two years at NCAR on ASP appointments; many have become leaders in academia, government, and private industry, with more than 100 serving as university faculty.

Through UCAR’s Visiting Scientist Programs, dozens of freshly minted atmospheric researchers gain valuable experience. Through a variety of sponsors, VSP administers a range of options for postdoctoral, junior, and senior scientists, many based at federal labs. One of VSP’s longest-term efforts, the NOAA Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Program, has served as a key training ground for more than 160 climate change specialists since 1991, providing fellowships and sponsoring an intensive biennial workshop.

“The VSP fellowship gave me ample support and significant freedom,” says Peter Huybers (Harvard University). “In my case, these were important ingredients for transitioning from being a graduate student to an independent scientist.”


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The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research under sponsorship by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.