In this week’s issue of Nature, we look into an ongoing debate about research priorities within the National Center for Atmospheric Research, one of the United States’ main climate research facilities in Boulder, Colorado.
Our story follows up on an earlier piece in the New York Times by Andrew Revkin, who initially broke the news that NCAR was laying off the well-respected political scientist Michael Glantz. Revkin also covered the story in his Dot Earth blog.
Such stories frequently peel apart like onions, and this one was no different. Glantz is not alone in his belief that NCAR is turning its back on the social sciences. NCAR management says it respects Glantz work but is in a budgetary bind. University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. questions NCAR’s numbers in his blog.
Meanwhile, other NCAR scientists who have worked in the social science program say they are comfortable with their positions. And some are worried that NCAR is falling behind on its basic sciences and climate modelling. Is this not the foundation for such a scientific institution?
Pielke also calls for more budget transparency and says NCAR and other scientific institutions need to do a better job of planning, during good times and bad. In other words, places like NCAR would be wise not to grow too quickly during boom times as this strategy will only make it more painful when the money stops flowing, as inevitably it will.
In the end, the question is how you define NCAR’s core mission. Nobody is arguing that social sciences don’t belong at there at all, and the institution’s mission statement underscores the point:
To understand the behavior of the atmosphere and related physical, biological, and social systems.
To support, enhance, and extend the capabilities of the university community and the broader scientific community, nationally and internationally.
To foster the transfer of knowledge and technology for the betterment of life on Earth.
But one thing is clear: It’s easier to answer such questions when the money is flowing freely.
On a different note, you might want to take a look at our cover story on low-carbon electricity. Several of us, including myself, tried to take a quantitative look at exactly how far we can push the envelope with the current slate of green energy technologies. Take-home forecast: The future looks sunny.