To serve and provide leadership to the atmospheric and
related communities through research, computing
and observational facilities, and education programs
that contribute to the betterment of life on Earth
Anniversaries are a time for reflecting on the past, assessing the present, and looking to the future. By almost any metric, UCAR and NCAR have been successful since the time a half century ago when a small group of people, most of them university professors of atmospheric science, boldly envisioned a national center—run by and for the universities—which would not only serve science and society but also complement and strengthen the universities themselves. Many of these achievements are described in this anniversary document; here we reflect on why these closely coupled institutions have been successful and how these building blocks will see us into a second 50 years.
We believe that four factors are needed to build and maintain a successful research institution. First and foremost, it takes people—not just any people, but the right kind of people, those with vision, commitment, talent, and most of all, integrity. It requires people with diverse backgrounds, ideas, and a team spirit.
Second, it takes a mission that is important, interesting, and perhaps even noble—one that inspires people, makes them enthusiastic about working beyond standard shifts, and motivates them to think about better ways of achieving their goals, including projects that are sometimes monumental in scope.
Third, it takes the necessary resources. This means having sponsors who are committed over the long term to the mission and success of the organization and its people, as well as supportive program managers with wisdom and dedication.
Fourth, it takes an organizational structure, a management philosophy, and a modus operandi that are flexible; transparent; open to outside ideas, reviews, and criticisms; and continually renewed through the frequent infusion of new ideas and people. The institution must reward achievements, maintain excellence and efficiency, and change with the times and cultures of the nation and world.
Working with UCAR’s member universities and with the National Science Foundation (NSF)—NCAR’s anchor sponsor for the entire 50 years of its existence—we have been fortunate to meet these four requirements, sometimes in unique ways. For example, we know of no other national laboratory in the world governed by a consortium of universities.
Our people—scientists and engineers, administrators and managers, and an amazing cadre of dedicated support staff—have joined colleagues at universities and laboratories around the world to produce an impressive variety of accomplishments. These range from decoding the workings of the Sun to deciphering weather and climate processes, building transformative observing instruments and platforms, and creating comprehensive models that reproduce and project the behavior of the atmosphere, oceans, and other parts of the Earth system. Such ambitious projects can continue longer than the careers of individuals, so we work to structure them in a collaborative fashion that incorporates the skills and views of many people. This allows each project to survive through—and even benefit from—the natural ebb and flow of participation from both inside and outside the organization.
Such collaboration is at the heart of NCAR and UCAR. Well over half of our resources are used to support university researchers and programs. We have complemented outstanding university education in many ways, including a world-renowned postdoctoral program and a four-year internship program that promotes diversity as well as scientific excellence.
The mission of UCAR and NCAR, most recently stated in the UCAR strategic outlook UCAR 2020, is:
. . . to serve and provide leadership to the atmospheric and related communities through research, computing and observational facilities, and education programs that contribute to the betterment of life on Earth.
This inspiring challenge encapsulates the vision of our founding leader, Walter Orr Roberts: that science can, and should, serve society. Many of our accomplishments have contributed to the intellectual understanding of the systems that support life on Earth (itself a societal benefit). But our efforts are also supporting very practical applications of atmospheric knowledge that enhance our health and economy, such as safer air and highway travel, more efficient energy production, and many other endeavors that depend on the environment.
Richard Anthes, UCAR president
Jack Fellows, UCAR vice president for corporate affairs and UCAR Community Programs director
Maura Hagan, NCAR deputy director
Katy Schmoll, UCAR vice president for finance and administration
Roger Wakimoto, NCAR director
Obtaining the necessary resources to make such a vision reality is no simple matter. We have been fortunate to have the strong and steady support of the National Science Foundation from the beginning. Coupled with judicious guidance and oversight from NSF as a strategic partner, this has enabled us to make progress on long-term goals that can take decades to achieve.
We have also drawn heavily on input, advice, and reviews from people at more than 100 member universities and affiliates. These colleagues have contributed thousands of hours each year as volunteers to help guide our institution, and their service is deeply appreciated and valued.
Looking to the next 50 years, we and our successors would do well to keep in mind the four factors that have made UCAR and NCAR successful over the past half century. It seems certain that NCAR will continue to provide cutting-edge community observing and computing facilities that support innovative research at our member institutions as well as our own laboratories. Another safe bet is that we will continue to work with colleagues to unravel the most challenging aspects of the Sun-Earth system. Our approach will remain open and collaborative, developing and using a mix of observational, theoretical, numerical, and analytical tools. In addition, we will continue to support the education and training of people of all ages and backgrounds through a variety of mechanisms, including fellowship and internship programs, community workshops and symposia, distance learning tools, and public outreach efforts.Without making specific predictions, we see the following trends unfolding over the next 50 years.
Observations will continue to be extremely important, but more of them will be collected by robotic and/or remote sensing systems, from ground and airborne platforms to satellites.
Complex models of the Earth system and its components will become even more vital tools of exploration, enabling theories to be tested, diverse observations to be assimilated, integrated analyses to be produced, and increasingly accurate predictions to be made.
We will draw on ever more powerful computers, networks, and systems to assimilate, archive, and visualize data.
Near real-time sharing of observations, analyses, and model output will become more widespread, and the number and diversity of users around the world will increase rapidly.
Specific, focused applications based on Earth system data and models will increasingly serve all sectors of society, including agriculture, energy, and emergency management and response.
Advances in communication technology will provide increasing opportunities to conduct collaborations remotely, thereby reducing our need to travel and our associated carbon footprint.
NCAR will likely become more project-oriented and involve larger teams of staff, visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and other professionals from government and the private sector as well as academia. We will strengthen our networking with colleagues from all parts of the world. Our staff will continue to become more diverse, more multinational and multilingual. In partnership with our member universities, we will help inform our nation’s citizens and train a new generation of environmental workers and leaders who can help society deal with the increasingly complex and multidisciplinary issues related to a changing climate. Communities that have not played a large role in our first 50 years, such as tribal and community colleges, will become partners in our efforts. We will strengthen our role as an intellectual commons without sacrificing practical approaches to solving real problems.
Regarding what may be the most important and most vexing scientific problem of our time, we expect to see the controversy surrounding global warming largely disappear as Earth continues to warm and the impacts become more obvious. We will continue to maintain the highest standards of objectivity, honesty, and transparency while strengthening our efforts to communicate our findings to the public—our most important stakeholder and the ultimate policymaker.
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.