michael glantzMichael Glantz in 1999. (Credit: National Center for Atmospheric Research)

Most of the humans in harm’s way from climate-related hazards don’t have federal weather agencies with billion-dollar budgets. They don’t have crop insurance. They don’t have reservoirs to hold rain when it’s abundant or storehouses ready to hold grain when famine looms.

For awhile, at least, they had Michael Glantz. This scrappy 68-year-old political scientist spent the last several decades hopscotching around the world’s harshest places trying to build their capacity to anticipate nature’s hard knocks, from the El Niño hot spells in the Pacific to drought in Afghanistan. His haven for 34 years was the pink concrete buildings of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo. Now he’s out. The atmospheric research center — facing chronic budget shortfalls as Congress and the White House have sparred over spending — has been shedding positions for years and now this modest effort to link climate science to human needs has been cut (saving $500,000 out of an $88 million annual science budget) [budget figure UPDATED from $120 million; $88 million is for science].

Some scientists there told me that Dr. Glantz’s little team was always kind of a bad fit, given the main focus of the lab on physical sciences, and particularly on refining giant simulations run on supercomputers to try to mimic the interrelated workings of the planet’s atmosphere, oceans, and frozen zones.

But the reaction was dismay among the small international community of social scientists trying to figure out how to make sure climate forecasts are useful to, say, an agriculture department in Ethiopia, or trying to figure out how supposed climate fixes like biofuels might create food shortages. Roger A. Pielke, Jr., who was a staff scientist at NCAR and is now at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has blogged on the decline of social science at the lab.

I’ll be posting some additional views from scientists. To my mind, there’s something resonating here beyond the issue of competing budgets. The specter of dangerous human-caused global warming, with its enormous potential consequences, its astounding complexity and high public profile, has become a beacon for thousands of scientists.

Much less challenging, and high profile, is the need, in a world heading toward nine billion people, to figure out how to make everything that’s been learned about drought, floods, and other climate-related risks useful to the majority of the human population — people in Niger and Bangladesh who face such risks every day right now, with or without whatever climate destabilization is coming from the ongoing buildup of greenhouse gases.

Dr. Glantz told me he’ll keep maintaining his fragilecologies.com site and teaching and holding workshops overseas. But his group, including experts on Asian and African climate risks, is dissolved.

Selected comments

ANDY REVKIN received by email while reporting news story (Trenberth is a senior scientist at NCAR):

It is true that we have budget problems and need to make cuts. I don’t think this should be interpreted as a lowering of the importance of the need to link science to impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. The question is how to best achieve those links? In particular, should NCAR do everything? Given the budgets in recent times it is plain that we can’t. My view is that a lot of this kind of science can be done in universities and without the need for a major center like NCAR, and so the challenge then is to have a framework and organizational structure to harness the disparate efforts elsewhere, such as a major annual meeting or workshop of some sort. My view carries no weight on these decisions, by the way.

Kevin Trenberth, NCAR
  • ANDY REVKIN received as email from Dr. Anthes, who administers operations at NCAR and wanted to clarify the full budgetary context of the eliminated program:

    It is important to note that, as mentioned by Eric, there have been many other reductions at NCAR over the past five years because of the subinflationary NSF base budgets for NCAR, and I talk about that in my 7/25 statement, which goes back to Administration and Congress failing to pass decent appropriation bills for NSF. Also, NCAR has not been alone in suffering these stresses, NASA and NOAA Earth science programs and university research sponsored by NSF, NOAA and NASA have been hurt significantly as well.. So this is a national problem—at a time when Earth sciences in general and climate in particular have never been more important, the programs that support these in NSF, NOAA and NASA have been declining. There are consequences to year after year of these declines, and the consequences include some very good programs being reduced or coming to an end. I wish I could print money or borrow for another generation to pay for like the government can, but I can’t.

    [ANDY REVKIN says: The following memo was issued by Dr. Anthes on July 25 — before the most recent program cuts — and provides more NCAR budget background for those who are interested:]

    7/25/2008 10:23 AM

    Statement on recent NCAR budget history and impacts
    Richard A. Anthes

    NCAR has received on average less than inflationary increases from NSF since 2004. The seemingly modest budget shortfalls we have absorbed for the past five years are taking a significant toll on the health and well being of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a key agency for NCAR and the entire academic research community. Congress passed and the President signed the National Science Foundation Reauthorization Act of 2002 and the America COMPETES Act of 2007. Both bills, with wide bi-partisan support, authorized the doubling of NSF funds over 10 years following report after report calling for this increase for the well being of the nation. But subsequent appropriations have fallen far short of the goals in those bills. The President’s Request for FY 2008 was promising, but the funding failed to materialize in the final Omnibus Bill. For FY2009, the President’s Request could once again move NSF toward a healthy budget, but everything we are hearing points to a Continuing Resolution at FY 2008 levels well into 2009. This would have additional very significant negative consequences on NCAR and the U.S. scientific community.

    Since 2003, NCAR’s allocation from NSF has increased by about two percent each year. During that time, the cost of doing business for NCAR increased by more than three percent each year. Within the two percent annual increase, NCAR had to absorb new additional costs associated with the operation of the new high altitude aircraft and associated instrumentation. The result of absorbing these additional costs has been an increase for the core NCAR activities of about 0.6 percent each year, or after inflation is considered, a net loss of the NCAR program of between two and three percent per year. These are the activities that include, for example, a world-class climate effort that was recognized by the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007. And they also include other less visible but highly important scientific areas such as solar physics, atmospheric chemistry, weather and societal impacts

    This is not a sustainable situation. NCAR has lost more than 100 NSF-funded positions over this period of time — over 10 percent of our workforce. Unavoidably, some of these losses have been key scientific positions, including in climate and weather prediction, but also in our observational and computational facilities. Specific examples of additional impacts include a reduction in capital equipment acquisitions across the entire lab with computing alone sliding from $7 million to $3 million, the elimination of NCAR’s lidar research facility as well as the extra-solar planet program, delays in computer modeling and prediction efforts for both weather and climate, reductions in the solar coronal observing program, a reduction in the number of post doctoral appointments, reduction of the societal impacts program, and widespread deferred maintenance and delays in equipment and instrument acquisition and replacement. These are just a few items taken from a very long list of impacts.

    NCAR’s story is just one of many examples of the effect that years of sub-inflationary funding for NSF have had on this nation’s scientific infrastructure. Research programs take decades to build, but can be eroded and then lost in a very short period of time. The scientific health and well being of this nation, with all of its ramifications for our future and global standing, depend upon strong funding for NSF and the research enterprise. We hope that 2009 represents a turnaround from the budget record of the past five years.

    — Posted by Richard Anthes

  • The outpouring of support for Mickey from around the world–from top researchers, policy makers, and practitioners–is heartening, despite the grim situation. That highlights that not only is Mickey scientific (with the peer reviewed publications to prove it) but also that he goes beyond science, to help and teach people from his science.

    Two examples are his unique studies on the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya Basin. This work is published by top peer-reviewed academic publishers. Mickey has also used it to create science-policy-practice networks, to teach students at all levels, and to try show policy makers and practitioners around the world what should be done to avert similar environmental challenges. What more do you need in a scientist?

    As for Dr. Trenbeth’s question “should NCAR do everything?” and Dr. Anthes statement about needing to choose amongst programs, they should read NCAR’s strategic plan. Are they saying that they do not want research papers in the journals “Science” and “Nature”? Are they saying that they do not want to build networks with scientists and students around the world? Are they saying that links should not be made amongst disciplines? All that is detailed in NCAR’s strategic plan–and Mickey did all that and more.

    Despite repeated requests for the information, no one from NCAR, UCAR, or NSF has provided any justification on why Mickey’s and CCB’s contributions to NCAR or its strategic plan were not value for money, and that is why they had to go.

    — Posted by Ilan Kelman

  • As Dr. Anthes reports, NCAR’s budget has been decreasing in real dollars for a number of years. It is curious to me that this decrease has occurred during the Bush Administration, which is well known for its contrary position on climate change. In reference to Michael Glantz’s program and the funding by the government-controlled National Science Foundation, the action to terminate the program smacks of the kind of silencing tactics used by the government on James Hansen of NASA who also spoke out on climate change. Cliff Jacobs can say what he wants but it is clear that he is an apologist for the climate budget cutters. Roger Pielke, though critical, has been much too kind. It should be a happy day for America when we are rid of this Administration in January and all their associates. Any candidate would be better than what we have.

    — Posted by Craig Goff, meteorologist

  • Andy, thank you for bringing this problem to light to such a wide audience. Up to this point, very few non-scientists have even heard of it. As a scientist myself, I know how difficult it is to obtain research funding. NSF is one of the main sources of research funding to the US scientific community. I am acquainted with at least one person who has been on the NSF grant funding panel for several years. This person has been appalled at the shrinking availability of funds for scientific research. Increasing numbers of extremely well-written proposals for potentially ground-breaking work have gone unfunded simply due to the lack of money rather than mediocre quality. The problem is quite far-reaching and as posted by Richard Anthes above, is not sustainable at the current levels. The government has not followed through on promises of increased funding, which has severely crippled climate research programs at a time when they are most needed. While he is not a physical scientist, what Dr. Glantz brought to the table was a perspective on the social aspect of such climate research in a real-world setting. What good is knowing and understanding the problem if you can’t give the public a reason to be interested as well? Even more importantly, how to we get the public involved? Interest only sometimes equates with a willingness to be involved.
    While we scientists are quite capable of researching and testing a finding causes to problems, we sometimes have… to put it nicely, a slight problem with relating the importance of our results to non-scientists. That is why it is so important to work together with various scientists, especially in the social sciences, first, to explain why the findings are relevant to the public and second, to find an acceptable compromise between scientific recommendations and social and economic feasibility. Whether we scientists like it or not, social structures and politics are inextricably connected to any real-world applications that we may propose. It can be like climbing a sheer rock face, but is completely worth the effort when it works.

  • — Posted by Anne H

Link to Dot Earth post: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/07/mourning-and-debate-after-climate-labs-death/