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.