Abrupt termination of NSF-funded climate humanitarian program raises fundamental questions

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Citing budget constraints, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced this week it will shut down its Center for Capacity Building, a small group of experts headed by Dr. Michael “Mickey” Glantz, a 35-year veteran of NCAR and a well-known champion of helping human beings adapt to climate change.  The Center was dedicated to assisting communities in Asia, Africa, and other areas less fortunate than the US in dealing with the societal impacts of weather and climate.  The abrupt announcement was met with vociferous protest within the social science community and amongst colleagues in the climate policy arena.  What does this move say about overall support for the role of social sciences in climate research and policy development?

by Anne Polansky, Sr. Associate (CSW Director Rick Piltz is on a book-writing sabbatical until the end of August)

The fundamental reason for investing over $2 billion a year into federal climate science programs across a dozen agencies, presumably, is to be able to inform society about how the earth’s climate system is changing, due to natural variability and human-induced causes.  We have over-saturated our atmosphere with CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and as a result are suffering the consequences:  prolonged droughts, more intense and frequent hurricanes and storms, heat waves, more wildfires, and so on.  While the US has excelled in conducting world-class scientific research, we have not been nearly as good at translating the scientific knowledge we’ve gained into readily usable information to guide policy decisions at all levels of society for “managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable” consequences of global climatic disruption.  Our nation, and nations across the globe, are poorly prepared both in terms of moving to a low-carbon economy so as to slow down the warming trend and head off dangerous tipping points, and in coping and dealing with the climate impacts we face no matter how much we reduce emissions.

This is where the social sciences can be of enormous value to us.  A variety of disciplines— economics, anthropology, psychology, political science, statistics, and so on—can add much in the way of better understanding the “human dimension” of the climate problem, and can help us chart a course for mitigating and adapting to climate disruption.  However, our investment in the social sciences has been dismal compared with that for the “hard” or physical sciences (atmospheric chemistry and physics, for example) that predominate our research institutions looking at the climate change problem.  Some would argue that we have chronically underfunded, even undermined, social scientists at every turn. 

One small but very productive program housed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), focused on using the social sciences to help communities across the globe face climate change, was shut down this week, and one highly productive and dedicated social scientist was let go.  The decision was made by Dr. Richard Anthes, Director of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of research universities that gets most of its funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to run NCAR and other research facilities. 

Noted worldwide for helping the less privileged facing survival challenges exacerbated by global climatic disruption, Mickey Glantz—the first social scientist to be hired at NCAR in 1974—has become somewhat of a climate adaptation guru around the globe.  The Center for Capacity Building at NCAR was clearly his baby.  Named Director of the CCB in 2005, after directing NCAR’s Environmental and Societal Impacts Group for 17 years, Glantz “is interested in how climate affects society and how society affects climate, especially in how the interaction between climate anomalies and human activities affect quality of life issues,” according to his biographical webpage.  He is a respected pioneer in the field of applying the social sciences to better link the fruits of the physical sciences with society for the betterment of the human condition. 

Dr. Glantz has published over a half dozen books, hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers, organized numerous international workshops, has a dedicated following, and maintains a website called “Fragilecologies” self-described as “a service for those interested in climate-society-environment interactions.”  In 2007 he edited and published a book, HEADS UP! Early Warning Systems for Climate, Water, and Weather, “to identify ways to make early warnings of potential ‘threats’ to society and the environment more useful, usable, credible, and reliable.”  Given NOAA’s predictions for an an above-normal hurricane season, earlier warnings communicated more effectively to human populations living in harm’s way can save lives.  Imagine another hurricane heading for New Orleans, and the importance of early warning to the already vulnerable communities still in recovery mode from Katrina and Rita.  Less resilient communities in developing countries are more vulnerable still, and earlier warnings can make all the difference. 

Glantz learned of the Center’s closing in an August 4 meeting with NCAR’s new Director as of July 1, Dr. Eric Barron, also a highly respected scientist who has made his mark in the field of geosciences, primarly geology and oceanography.  Thinking the meeting was a “meet and greet” to welcome his new boss, Glantz was informed of the decision to shut down his Center and to abruptly terminate his 35-year tenure at NCAR.  There had been no previous warning of the cut, and no indication that the Center was under-performing.  Glantz, approaching 69 years old, was likely soon to retire anyway within a few years, but was not planning an imminent departure, and interpreted the news as another attack on the social sciences.  Others in the field agree—see for example the comments on Andrew Revkin’s DotEarth blog post. 

Scientists familiar with NCAR and its work believe the decision is out of line with NCAR’s own mission. 

According to NCAR’s most recent (2006) strategic plan, the NCAR mission is:  (emphasis added)

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

NCAR’s annual budget in fiscal year 2008 is about $150 million, of which $87.7 million is from NSF.  The FY08 budget represents a 3% increase from the year before, according the NSF FY 2009 budget request to Congress (p. 385).  NCAR’s request for FY 2009 is $95.9 million, a 9.5% increase; however the FY 2009 budget is hanging in limbo while the Congress still grapples with spending bills, months overdue.  Increases in overhead at the labs have been cited as a cause for concern, and a need to belt-tighten.  However, given that CCB’s annual budget represents 0.33% of the total NCAR operating budget, it is difficult to imagine that the cuts could not have been made elsewhere, sparing the Center.   

Clifford A. Jacobs, NSF’s section head for the atmospheric research center and related programs, is reported to have said that the decision did not mean that the center was interested only in basic physical climate science.  He is quoted as lamenting:
“This came as a very, very difficult decision… You have to protect your core activities, but as budgets keep shrinking you have to redefine your core.”

In an article the following day, Mickey Glantz retorted:

“It’s clear that social science is not seen as a core value of the organization.”

UCAR Director Anthes posted a statement on the UCAR website this week describing the nature of the budget problem and a variety of “painful” budget cutting measures being implemented. 

In killing this program, and dismissing Mickey Glantz, NSF, UCAR, and NCAR have tossed aside a program that was valued by many and lost a dedicated public servant.  More importantly, it seems, NCAR is now less equipped to “foster the transfer of knowledge and technology for the betterment of life on Earth,” one of three hallmarks of its own strategic plan.

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