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Top climate-impacts programme shut

National Center for Atmospheric Research axes developing-world initiative.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The lay-off last week of a senior political scientist involved in helping poor countries prepare for climate change has exposed a stark division in opinions on the core purpose of a key US climate-research institution.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, says its hand was forced by several years of largely stagnant budgets. These have resulted in the loss of 12% of its core workforce during the past five years — ironically, during a period in which climate change moved to centre stage in Washington DC.

But the lay-off of Mickey Glantz, a high-profile researcher who has chalked up some 34 years at the institution, has raised questions about whether NCAR is turning its back on the social sciences at a time when international efforts are focusing on mitigation and adaptation. Certainly Glantz believes this is the case, saying budgets are just an excuse and that the leadership is defensively “circling the wagons”. His dismissal is tied to NCAR’s announcement last week that it is shutting its Center for Capacity Building, the highly respected outreach programme that Glantz has run since 2005.

But others associated with the programme say they believe the NCAR leadership still backs them despite its budgetary problems. “I don’t think this has anything to do with shutting down social science at NCAR,” says Linda Mearns, who recently stepped down as director of the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment there. Mearns says social scientists within the institute will continue to work with physical scientists at NCAR on integrated research projects. “And that’s the proper role for an institute in social science at NCAR.”

Mickey Glantz’s social science department has been axed. Credit: IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin

On the other side, some scientists are questioning whether the institution has done enough to maintain, let alone build, its expertise in the physical sciences, particularly in climate modelling. These questions have been driven home by the departure of key scientists, including William Collins, who helped oversee NCAR’s climate modelling programme. “I can tell you in the science divisions here, it’s the worst mood people have seen in a long time, and one reflection is people walking away,” says Caspar Ammann, a palaeoclimatologist at the institution.

NCAR’s new director, Eric Barron, who took over in July, says the institution is in an “interesting position”, caught between a dismal budgetary outlook and ongoing concerns about where NCAR should direct its limited resources. “A number of people are saying that our climate modelling programme has taken too big of a hit. People are saying very loudly that NCAR is not setting its priorities the way it should,” he says. “The simple fact of the matter is that years of tight budgets are coming home to roost.”

Barron says he supports the social science mission but was able to preserve several positions throughout the institution “that are of critical importance” by eliminating a single programme that he says cost upwards of $730,000 annually.

NCAR’s base budget — almost $88.5 million in the fiscal year 2008 — comes from the US National Science Foundation, although the institution receives significant funding from other federal agencies as well. In the fiscal year 2007, its overall budget came to $149.3 million. Although current appropriations bills in Congress would increase NCAR’s budget, few expect this legislation to pass in an election year. Congress is likely to wind up passing a “continuing resolution” later this autumn that would effectively freeze current spending levels until at least early next year.

Roger Pielke Jr, a climate policy expert at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says it’s not clear why Glantz was singled out or, more broadly, how NCAR is addressing its fiscal situation. “There’s really no transparency in how these decisions are made,” he says.

Glantz, who has been guaranteed one year’s salary, says he plans to stay on for a while, although such courtesies will not be extended to his staff, including an administrative position and two researchers.

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NCAR’s Center for Capacity

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Tollefson, J. Top climate-impacts programme shut. Nature (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/454808a

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