Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shifting sands of meteorology research

It's likely that most non-scientists have very little knowledge of how research gets funded and how the process works.  For many years, I was a research scientist working in the Federal Civil Service (CS) system for various agencies.  Then, when I retired from Civil Service more than 10 years ago, I began the process of research in a state-supported university.  Thus, I've seen how research gets done from two very different perspectives.

Of late, however, things have been changing.  When I was with NOAA, researchers were paid as CS employees, and were expected to pursue research topics relevant to their respective agencies.  If the research required resources beyond the salaries of the researchers, it was up to agency management to allocate whatever research funding to support those activities they might (or might not) have available.  The process of getting additional research funding was mostly aimed at your own management.  If you didn't get resources to do a particular project, then either those tasks weren't done or you did them as opportunity permitted.  As I was leaving NOAA, the process was changing, however.  The process was beginning to resemble university-based research:  projects running over a more or less fixed time scale of about 3 years, lists of deliverables, formal proposals being written to obtain funding support, with peer review, and so on.  I can't speak to what is now going on in NOAA from my own experience, but my friends suggest that the evolution of how research gets funded has continued along the lines I could see beginning as I was retiring.

Frankly, I don't think this is a particularly good development, but the process of transforming the CS research system seems irreversible.  I liked the old system, but I must admit that it permitted some folks within it to survive for decades without being very productive.  I wonder if productivity has improved under the new processes?  Some of the drones I knew personally are still employed!

In the university system, the primary funding agency has been the National Science Foundation.  I've had several NSF proposals funded and it's been very satisfying to see those projects reach fruition.  NSF has been changing its procedures to reflect pressures being brought on them as a result of the climate change controversies (among other things).  There also has been a greater emphasis on applications of NSF-sponsored research, compared to even the recent past, when basic research was the primary activity that NSF sought to support.  Things do seem to be changing.

The public surely knows very little about how NSF support for research works, so the myth perpetuated by climate change deniers that researchers are enriching themselves at public expense persists.  That such nonsense is given any credibility at all leaves me frustrated with the extent of public ignorance of reality in research.  If we expect the public to support our research, we need to be able to inform them about how it actually works.

There's some reasonable chance I'll be able to get a few more years of NSF funding support for my research. But the economic crisis underscores the reality that nothing is guaranteed.  When I was in NOAA, my own income was the only thing "guaranteed" - and even that was vulnerable to economic conditions.  The times, they are a-changing and it remains to be seen how things will evolve, of course.  As my research career winds down, it will be interesting to see just what will survive ...