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Boulder’s NCAR Gets 30-day Funding Reprieve, but Shutdown Still Impacting Research

January 18, 2019
Curtis Walker, a Longmont resident and postdoctoral fellow with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, works in his office in Boulder on Thursday. He said his studies on weather's impacts on traffic are being hampered by the ongoing federal shutdown.

A keystone Boulder scientific institution received a glimmer of good news this week in the midst of the federal government shutdown when funding came through from the National Science Foundation, putting on hold emergency plans to make employees choose between a furlough or working for half-pay on a “voluntary” basis.

Antonio J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research for the National Science Foundation, sent a letter to staff on Wednesday to announce that “Phase 2” of its shutdown operating strategy — which outlined a tough choice between furloughs or “voluntary delayed salary” — had been forestalled.

That plan was to have been implemented Friday, but for now it won’t be necessary.

It was a sliver of positivity at a grim time.

The mostly idled federal laboratories in Boulder County are credited with contributing about $1.1 billion dollars a year to the state economy. One member of the local science community who asked not to be named on Thursday — day 27 of the government shutdown — said science locally was “dead in the water” because of the government impasse over a wall President Donald Trump wants built at the nation’s southwestern border.

NCAR/UCAR is not a federal laboratory, but the funding for much of its $217 million fiscal year 2018 budget comes from the NSF, which is closed due to the “lapse in appropriations,” as its website puts it . NCAR, with 855 employees as of November, also works closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder

NOAA is sidelined by the shutdown, save for a small number of employees deemed essential, such as forecasters at the National Weather Service. But for at least the next month, scientists at NCAR will breathe a sigh of relief and keep working and getting paid fully — despite being impacted by the stasis in many other sectors of the research community.

‘Continuing to fall behind’

“I am very pleased to report that NCAR/UCAR has received another 30 days of funding from the National Science Foundation that covers both the old and new Cooperative Agreements, and the funding from other agencies that flows through NSF Interagency Agreements,” the letter from Busalacchi stated.

“For now, we remain in Phase 1 (modified business as usual) through mid-February, and you will receive full paychecks on January 18, February 1 and 15. We will continue to assess our operating funds daily to ensure that we utilize our available resources effectively. Labs and programs should remain conservative with funds.”

Had employees ended up working at half-pay, they would have received the balance of their normal pay once the shutdown is resolved.

In an interview Thursday, Busalacchi said he started his professional career at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 1982 during a federal shutdown, and he’s not at all happy to find the scientific community dealing with yet another — the longest in U.S. history.

“We are continuing to fall behind in the case of numerical weather prediction upgrades to forecasting models,” he said. “Preparedness for the next hurricane season has been put on hold as a result. This is clearly retarding our efforts to make the United States No. 1 in numerical weather prediction.”

The work being hampered in the scientific community, he said, fundamentally “comes down to providing forecasting improvements important to protecting life, property, economic growth and national security. The shutdown is retarding our efforts to make advancements in areas that have a tangible impact on the citizenry of the United States.”

At the rank and file level, there are scientists such as postdoctoral researcher and Longmont resident Curtis Walker. He’s in year one of a planned two-year project, combining computer deep learning and artificial intelligence with traffic camera data and real-time surface weather observations to examine the ways in which weather impacts traffic — something to which most everyone on the Front Range can relate.

For now, NOAA data he needs to access are unavailable, making his research more challenging.

“Time is precious,” he said. “I say that in two ways. Winter season, we’re in the heart of it. So not getting access to those data sets ... impacts real-time research, only having one to two years.

“Having a month missing of data, you can work on other projects, but if you can’t get the information you need, it can affect your postdoc. It can definitely result in limitations down the line on what you were able to accomplish, within the scope of your work.”

A plea for compromise

Walker greeted the NSF funding lifeline to NCAR with, he said, “an unimaginably huge sigh of relief.”

“As postdocs, I will say NCAR is compensating us very generously, compared to other postdocs in the country,” Walker said. “But with the cost of living in Colorado, especially in the Boulder area, it is still living paycheck to paycheck.”

Prior to hearing of the funding reprieve, he said, “It would have been a significant barrier to overcome,” had it not come through. “I know my wife and I were scrambling, certainly, to figure out what we would have money for, and what we would have to implement otherwise, to make ends meet.”

Political issues aside, Walker said, “I can only say it is a frustrating situation. And we as scientists certainly know that compromise is truly the name of the game, and you learn to work with diverse groups of people on all sides of different issues. It’s definitely frustrating, and we can only hope that it ends sooner than later.”

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan

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