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.