A farewell chat with Rick

In early January, Rick Anthes will step down after more than 23 years as UCAR president. Staff Notes visited Rick in his office in the Fleischmann Building to reflect on his tenure at UCAR and ask about his plans for the future.

How would you sum up your experience as UCAR president?

It’s been a fantastic experience. The positives have far outweighed the negatives, and that’s because this is such a great place to work. The issues, challenges, and opportunities are different every year. And almost every day something happens that has made it very exciting—and never routine.

Are there are specific projects or milestones from your tenure that stand out to you?

Rick Anthes outside the Fleischmann Building.

At the 2011 UCAR Members Meeting, I gave five in chronological order. The first is the HIAPER aircraft. We began working on it in 1982, and the first flight was in 2005. It was a long-term project that turned out very well. The Community Climate System Model is another that I had a role in getting started. It’s been very successful and has thousands of users in more than a hundred countries. Then there was the SOARS program, which was very exciting and totally different in that it’s a human resource development program that tried to move our community to another level in attracting women and underrepresented minorities to the atmospheric sciences. The fourth is radio occultation—the GPS-MET experiment followed by the COSMIC program. It’s rare that anyone gets to do a first-ever breakthrough of its kind in science and technology demonstration, so that was really exciting. And most recently, of course, is the NCAR–Wyoming Supercomputing Center, which is almost ready to open. It represents a 300-million increase in computing speed over the first computer I used at NCAR, the CDC 6600 in the 1960s.

You've probably witnessed major changes over the years in how we do business.

One thing that’s really changed how we work is communications. When I became president, email was just starting. We had a primitive but novel system called OMNET that the oceanographers started. But it was just for researchers and a few administrators—and you had to pay to use it.  We all had OMNET addresses that were simply our first-name initials followed by our last names, separated by periods.  Mine was R.Anthes, and more than one person called me by the name “R dot Anthes” when they saw me.

Climate change has become a hot-button issue in the time you’ve been here. What are your thoughts on that?

Climate change was a major issue only among a few people in the mid-1980s. Steve Schneider, Walter Orr Roberts, and Will Kellogg were some of the NCAR leaders, but among most climate scientists, it was just an issue to watch and wasn’t seen as a significant problem until the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. Steve Schneider and John Firor pushed NCAR to get more into coupled climate system models. We’ve come a long way to where we are today. The other part of it is that the politics have changed—there’s been a huge shift in the political environment due to climate science denial.  This is a worrisome development to say the least.

Is there anything about being UCAR president that staff would be surprised to learn?

UCAR is a very flat organization. The president has significant power, but I rarely if ever use it in a top-down way. Staff might be surprised to learn that I don’t make decisions in isolation and then send down directives to everyone else—it’s very much a collegial, shared responsibility with UCAR, NCAR, and UCP management. If we can’t get a consensus, we get a strong majority on every decision. And people feel free to criticize me and my proposals. You get much better decisions when you have open, critical discourse and people feel free to ask hard questions, which often change my mind from my original leanings.

Where do you see UCAR going under the incoming director, Tom Bogdan?

Tom is inheriting a great organization and I think he’ll do extremely well. The biggest challenge he’s going to face is the budget situation, which is affecting all scientific and technical organizations in the United States, not just UCAR. I have great confidence in him—he has very high integrity and is extremely bright and dedicated.

What will happen on January 9, when you wake up and don’t have to go to work?

I’m doing a phased retirement as president emeritus over the course of three years, working 20% time. I’m gradually moving my office down to a new one in the Anthes Building. I’m thinking about writing one or two books.  One would be on the history of UCAR and NCAR since I came here in ’81—the second half of UCAR’s history. I’ve got a lot of boxes and files of notes that nobody else has, so I may have some unique perspectives. The other would be a history of radio occultation, which would be more of a scientific book. And I hope to mentor SOARS protégés in the summer and work on some special projects.  I may also do a little teaching if the opportunity arises.

Rick sitting at his desk.
Rick in 1986, the year he became NCAR director. He became president of UCAR two years later.

How will you spend your new free time?

I expect to do community service and plan to travel more with my wife. We have a house in Chincoteague, Virginia, that we enjoy very much. We plan to spend two long periods down there each spring and fall.

You’ve been known among staff for your early work hours, often sending email messages at 4:00 a.m. Will you still get up before sunrise now that your workload is reduced?

I’ll probably still get up early. It’s just the way I am. I like the morning hours—fresh coffee, no distractions—whether for reading or writing.

Any final thoughts about UCAR and your presidency?

Certainly it’s the people who work here who have made it so rewarding. I’ve never seen a group of such smart, dedicated people. And there’s no institution like this in the world, where basically the universities have their own national center. UCAR and NCAR is a truly unique partnership. There’s nothing like it in any part of the world.