Scientific and Engineering Appointments

NCAR’s scientific and engineering staff is fundamental to its success as a federally funded research and development center. This staff is at the core of NCAR’s mission of helping the United States to uphold a position of world leadership in science and technology, promoting the transfer of new knowledge to society, and contributing to excellence in science and technology education. A recent and important change in our workforce was the creation of the research engineer job track. The track is viewed as parallel to NCAR’s ladder scientist track and ensures that the institution will be poised to be a leader in developing cutting-edge technology in the coming decades.

The organization has historically tracked the progression of ladder-track scientists through the various appointment levels. The flow-through diagram illustrating hires, promotions, and departures from 2002 to 2009 is shown in Figure 9.

NCAR Scientists and Research Engineers

Figure 9: NCAR Scientist flow-through diagram illustrating hires, promotions, and departures.

The recommendations that are shown below can be grouped around two broad themes. The first involves clarifying the UCAR/NCAR policy on retention or termination of ladder-track scientists and research engineers in order to move from what is currently perceived as an implicit or de facto tenure system to one that is clearly described and consistently applied. The subcommittee emphasized that there should be both reasonable job security for ladder-track positions with safeguards against arbitrary or capricious terminations, and clearer delineation of
responsibilities within the ladder track. To that end, these recommendations must be packaged with limitation of ladder scientists to a number that can be afforded by the NSF base budget, a strengthened post–Appointment Review Group (ARG) review process, and a clear delineation of position responsibilities for mission-oriented research and community service.

The second theme is the intent to strengthen the roles of NCAR management units (laboratories and divisions) in the scientific appointments process. Toward that end, the recommendations suggest the transfer of the post-ARG review and some aspects of the ARG review to those units, in the belief that quality control in scientific and research engineering appointments is best done at this level and that these units must be held accountable for ensuring quality. It is also recommended that the NSF base budgets of the management units be adequate to cover the salaries of ladder-track scientists in those units; management at that level will then be responsible to exercise restraint and avoid budget over-commitment.

The subcommittee carefully examined a number of alternative models for structuring scientific and engineering appointments. They included extreme-change models (e.g., a center dominated by visitors with only a small permanent staff or a strongly entrepreneurial center following the example of RAL), various university models (e.g., with low to high retention rates from entry to tenured professor), and models that placed limits on the number of positions or promotions.

Each model was considered in light of its impacts on the following set of important attributes:

  • Reputation and quality of staff and institution
  • Collegiality and work environment
  • Links to the external community
  • Academic freedom (both freedom from dismissal for unpopular ideas or research areas and freedom to devote some fraction of time to basic, innovative research in areas favored by the scientist)
  • Job security (related to academic freedom)
  • Ability to address institutional goals; flexibility
  • Fairness
  • Overall attractiveness of positions as viewed by top-level scientists and engineers

Conclusion: The overwhelming consensus was that none of the other models considered have obvious advantages over the current NCAR system. The historical scientist appointment model at NCAR has been extremely successful in allowing the institution to recruit top scientists, achieve institutional scientific objectives, and maintain strong connections to the academic community.


Scientific and Engineering Appointments (continued)

Job Security and Academic Freedom

1.  Strengthen the appointment process for ladder scientists and research engineers, and clarify the related policies and practices.

Specific clarification should be provided for the policies and practices regarding ladder-track appointments at NCAR. An NCAR scientist policy is presented in Appendix C. It includes procedures for the involuntary termination of ladder-track scientists for reasons of incompetence, neglect of duty, misconduct, or financial exigency or reduction in program.

NCAR should explore ways to increase the prestige and job security of the Scientist III position. Several pertinent issues are discussed in Appendix C, and many of the recommendations below are intended to address this need. Key aspects of the tenure-like system proposed in the appendix are:

  • For consistency with university faculty appointment systems, authorization by the UCAR Board of Trustees should be required for appointments to the Scientist and Research Engineer III positions.
  • Adoption of the policies and practices specified in Appendix C and other recommendations in this report would strengthen the standards for promotion to Scientist and Research Engineer III and perhaps also Scientist and Research Engineer IV at the division or laboratory level.

2.  Clarify balance between fundamental scientific research and community service.

Expectations for each ladder-track position should be quantified in terms of percentage of time devoted to independent research, mission-oriented research, and both internal and external service. These percentages should be regularly updated as part of the annual review process.

New and prospective employees should be better informed about the dual roles of NCAR scientists and research engineers, expectations of their involvement in basic research and community service projects, and the level and type of support that is available for community service.

The promotion process needs to be clarified to reflect the expected balance between scientific contributions to basic research and community service projects, to ensure that all expected activities are considered appropriately in scientific promotions.

3.  Base support and expectations of external funding.

In recent years the number of senior scientists (Scientist III and IV) has increased to a level that is significantly higher than what can be supported by NSF base funds.  This has led to stresses in the NCAR budget, including lack of base funds to support other important positions in the science divisions, such as visitors, support staff, and junior scientists.  It is critical that NCAR restore an appropriate balance between support for senior scientists and support for other activities.

An appropriate balance between junior and senior scientific staff is difficult to define.  This issue was studied in 1997 by a committee of NCAR senior scientists led by NCAR Senior Scientist Bill Mankin.  The Mankin Report ( suggested that the ratio of senior (Scientists III and IV) to junior scientists (Scientists I and II) should be about 2.5 to 1.  History has shown that this ratio has often been considerably higher than 2.5, reaching a maximum of 6 to 1 in 2001 (Figure 10), when it became quite apparent that NCAR needed to increase its number of junior scientists.  A resulting surge in hiring of Scientists I in the next several years restored the balance to near 2.5, but budget shortfalls in recent years have reduced the ability to hire new staff, and the ratio has crept back to almost 4 to 1.  In addition, the budget shortfalls have required the termination of some senior scientists for the first time in many years.

Ratio of senior scientists

Figure 10:  Ratio of senior scientists (Scientists III and IV) and junior scientists (Scientists I and II) at NCAR from 1997 to 2009 (as of July 1 each year).  The Mankin Report suggested that this ratio should be about 2.5 to 1.

There is also concern that the ratio of staff costs to total costs in some NCAR divisions has become too high.  Experience indicates that when the permanent staff costs exceed 75-80% of the division’s budget, the division becomes stressed in its ability to support travel, computers, visitors, reserves, new initiatives, and other important functions.  In some divisions this ratio has approached 90%, which is clearly unhealthy.

The above concerns suggest that NCAR should limit the total number of permanent staff to a cost that is approximately 75-80% of the NSF base budget. Ladder-scientist positions need to be held to a level that is affordable when considering the other needs of the institution.

Support for scientists is currently deficient in many groups at NCAR, and scientists are inefficient in their work as a result. Those groups need to take steps to address this imbalance, even if it requires hiring fewer scientists and research engineers. This critical aspect of the work environment is making NCAR less attractive to scientists and research engineers, who see greater opportunities in university environments where they have greater control over support.

NCAR units should be able to cover the salaries of ladder-track positions from base funds if so required. This inherently limits the number of ladder-track positions a laboratory or division can support. While external funds can temporarily provide salary relief, units should manage budgets so that ladder-track positions can be covered when these funds are no longer available. External funding should supplement base funding to support NCAR’s strategic goals.

Expectations for obtaining external funding need to be defined, clearly communicated (in writing), and incorporated into criteria for review and promotion.  Successful fund raising should be weighed as evidence of scientific and engineering excellence and productivity.

NCAR/UCAR management should continue to communicate with agencies and other sponsors and the university community so that they understand funding needs and restrictions at NCAR.  For example, NCAR scientists cannot normally compete for NSF funds, and often other agencies’ support does not cover NCAR scientists’ salaries. In addition, external funding supports many activities that directly advance the science done by university colleagues and the vast majority of non-core proposals are collaborative with the community.

Scientific and Engineering Appointments (continued)

Criteria, Process, and Policy for Scientific and Research Engineering Appointments

1. Revise appointment criteria and processes and clarify expectations for promotion.

The current Appointments Review Group (ARG) criteria need some revision. ARG promotion is based on a single overarching criterion—scientific and engineering excellence—as demonstrated by substantial (1) scientific productivity, (2) leadership, (3) national and international reputation, (4) contribution to NCAR programs, (5) breadth, (6) scientific and technical service in the NCAR context, (7) broad community service, and (8) awards. We recommend more explicit recognition of some other characteristics including creativity, innovation, and scientific insight. We also recommend some clarification of the programmatic criteria (items 4, 6, and 7) in order to make them easier to understand, particularly for external referees, who, for example, often struggle with the meaning of item 6.

A uniform and standardized set of criteria should be developed by the ARG, reviewed and approved by the senior scientists and research engineers, and recommended to NCAR management. These criteria should be applied in hiring, evaluating, and promoting NCAR scientists and research engineers.

Scientists and research engineers at all levels should have easy access to clear descriptions of the promotion processes, including those within divisions and laboratories, and should receive ongoing advice regarding their progress toward meeting the qualifications for promotion. Annual performance review criteria should be closely aligned with the criteria for promotion, thereby facilitating better assessment of progress toward promotion. There should be uniform promotion/review criteria across laboratories and divisions, although the relative weighting of the criteria may vary, depending on the mission of the division/program and the job requirements of the scientist or research engineer.

More of the responsibility for promotion review should be assigned to the nominating laboratory or division, where the primary quality control is imposed. Laboratories and divisions should solicit an initial set of letters of reference for their own deliberations, assemble and review nomination packages, reach their own recommendation on whether the case should proceed to the ARG, and summarize the process, deliberations, and recommendation in writing along with their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the case.

The laboratory or division has full responsibility for deciding which cases will be taken forward to the ARG. Failure of a nomination at the ARG level should trigger the NCAR director to consider why the nomination failed and if quality control failed at the level of the nominating entity. The nomination packages, all solicited letters, and the written summary prepared by the laboratory or division should be forwarded without change to the ARG, which would remain authorized to solicit additional letters of reference, if necessary. ARG review would thus continue to maintain standards for the institution, but would also assess how well the standards are being maintained at the laboratory and divisional levels.  NCAR management should emphasize to the laboratories/divisions that they must forward recommendations to the ARG at the appropriate time, not prematurely or so belatedly as to hold back qualified cases.

A systematic and documented review at the time of promotion from Scientist/Research Engineer I to Scientist/Research Engineer II should be instituted by the home laboratory or division, providing more formal guidance to scientists and research engineers regarding their career development.  This procedure would closely mimic the pre-tenure review process at many universities.

The ARG procedures should provide for enough flexibility to allow consideration of cases out of the normal ARG cycle, including both external hires and internal promotions.

Scientific and Engineering Appointments (continued)

2. Clarify the boundaries between the ladder tracks and other appointments.

There are a number of job categories at NCAR in which a scientist’s or engineer’s contributions could be of great benefit to the organization, so the “up-or-out” policy should apply only to the scientist and research engineer ladder and not explicitly to continued employment at NCAR. Those on the ladder who are unsuccessful in being promoted to the II and III levels should be given fair consideration for available positions in other job categories that are openly advertised and competed.

For consistency with the “up-or-out” policy, if a candidate for promotion to Scientist/Research Engineer III is unsuccessful in the ARG, that individual will not be considered for future appointments or promotions on the scientist/research engineer ladders.

Ladder-track positions have a special nature (person-based and with greater risk), so entering the ladder should require an open process of advertising and hiring. Thus, an employee in a job category outside the scientist or research engineer ladder should first be selected in an open competition before moving to the ladder (or seeking ARG approval for positions at the III and IV levels). If unsuccessful, the individual could then stay in his or her current position, provided that position is retained.  (Note: waivers to the search and selection process can be requested following UCAR Policies & Procedures 6-3.6).

3. Better define the policy on stopping or slowing the clock.

The current policy on stopping the clock should be clarified by addressing the following issues:

  • How the promotion clock timing is determined and applied.
  • How and if the clock and its associated metrics should be interpreted when considering external applicants to the Scientist and Research Engineer II and III positions.
  • Circumstances that warrant stopping the promotion clock (which should still allow flexibility for individual circumstances).
  • Procedures and responsibilities for granting extensions—for example, the division director makes the recommendation, to be reviewed and approved at the laboratory level.
  • Explicit instructions to the ARG that promotion should be based solely on the record, not on the time the candidate’s case has taken to reach the ARG.
  • Clear communication of clock policies to the scientific and research engineering staff.

4. Revise and strengthen the post-ARG review.

A strengthened post-ARG review process is needed to guard against abuse of the job security that comes with Scientist and Research Engineering III-IV positions.

To improve the effectiveness of the review and reduce its administrative burden, we recommend transfer of the process to the division or laboratory level.  The unit director would use the unit's senior scientists, plus some additional senior scientists appointed by the NCAR director for the expertise needed to assess the case. These scientists are in the best position to assess the quality and significance of the individual's work and contributions to NCAR programs. We further recommend using the current process as a guideline that can be adapted as appropriate to specific needs within the laboratories or divisions. Recommendations would be conveyed to the NCAR director for his or her final decision.