Monday, December 16, 2013

Whither goest operationally-relevant severe storms research?

As part of my post-NOAA employment, I've been funded (part time) for several years by grants from the National Science Foundation.  Before that, I worked in NOAA as both a forecaster (for a time) and as a research scientist.  In particular, after retiring from NOAA, I forged a particularly exciting and productive collaboration with some outstanding colleagues, exploring the connection between synoptic-scale weather systems and major tornado outbreaks.  We had an initial 3-year grant and were able to renew that grant for another 3 years.  During those 6 years, we had a quite substantial number of papers accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals: something on the order of a dozen or so.  And two of our grad students earned their doctorates and are now working as university faculty.  But we failed to obtain funding for a third 3-year grant - the reviews were very mixed, with some very high ratings but also some pretty negative ratings.  On that basis, NSF declined to fund us.  I know it sounds like sour grapes to complain about the process.  We did get 6 years of funding, after all.

What's particularly bothersome to me is that I felt that the really exciting results were going to come in this next grant.  We didn't have any particularly profound insight to explore, but we had some ideas that seemed promising, and our track records as leading professionals in our fields suggested that our ideas deserved the benefit of the doubt.  But no.  Not happening.  I realize that just because we're scientists with extensive publication records doesn't mean our ideas should be accepted automatically.  But in reading the negative reviews, it seemed the reviewers either didn't read the proposal very carefully or weren't qualified to offer comments on our proposal.  This isn't a rare experience - in today's tough economic times, it's really hard to get proposals funded, regardless of their merits.  We're far from alone in being thwarted by the NSF funding process.  I see no conspiracy, but I'm quite dissatisfied by the way we were reviewed.  As a matter of fact, we weren't only turned down - we were turned down twice!  Either we're no longer capable of doing important severe storms research, or something went awry along our path.  How do we go from being successful researchers to incompetent overnight?

During the course of my career, it became evident early on that I had little or no competition for my chosen career path - to be on the interface between operations and research.  Not all of my work has been operationally relevant, but that's always been the perspective toward which most of my research has been directed.  I've wanted to do basic research into physical processes, but with an eye toward applying any understanding gained to operational weather forecasting.  With the end of my professional career in sight, I look about and see very few individuals with a similar bent in my subdiscipline.  Hence, my question:  who will continue this effort? 

Not having the funding to do the work means it's likely that the work we wanted to pursue won't be done any time soon.  It will be up to someone else to learn what we hoped to learn.  In a recent conversation with an operational forecaster, it seems that when it comes to most of the critical issues in severe storm forecasting, there isn't much being done.  Our work likely wouldn't have resulted in a dramatic breakthrough (although such a possibility existed) - an optimistic but plausible outcome would have been an improvement in the false alarm rate for outlooks of major tornado outbreaks by, say, 10-20% while keeping the probability of detection at current levels.  And our findings could be converted into an operationally useful forecast guidance system.  That wouldn't be a breakthrough, but it would be operationally useful and valuable to the science.  That would have been a nice way to end my career as a professional researcher on that interface but, alas, it seems now that it won't come to pass.  It ends not with a bang, but with a whiny blog.

This isn't my first funding disappointment.  I noted recently I've been honored with some end-of-career awards.  I really appreciate those awards, but I'd gladly trade them all for having been given the enthusiastic support to do more of the work I love.  As a former supervisor once said - "Don't tell me my work is wonderful but at the same time give me no support for the work I want to pursue!"