Thursday, September 8, 2011

Changing Priorities

If you are an astronomer who doesn't work at a university, the chances are good that you work at one of the many federally funded research facilities or observatories (e.g. STScI, NOAO). There are several types of positions at such institutions, including some supported by grants (soft money) and others supported by base funding from the sponsor (hard money). Some hard money positions can even be on a tenure track, with the usual disclaimer about being "contingent on the availability of funding". These jobs generally involve some combination of research and service in support of the mission of the organization. Such positions are ideal for scientists who want to spend most of their time doing research rather than teaching -- the only catch is that your research must be relevant to the strategic goals of the institution.

My first experience working in a federally funded research laboratory came during the summer before I finished my PhD. One of the external members of my thesis committee was a hard money scientist at the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) in Boulder, Colorado -- part of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is sponsored directly by the National Science Foundation. Growing up professionally in an academic environment, I was surrounded by scientists who decided that being a university professor was the best career choice. This was my first exposure to an institution filled with people who had made a different evaluation. It was a powerful experience that really resonated with my vision of the ideal job, and by the end of the summer I was convinced that a hard money career path was right for me.

After finishing my thesis, I spent several years as a postdoc before landing an NSF fellowship that brought me back to HAO. About a year later, I was hired as a tenure track hard money scientist. As the name suggests, the primary research focus at NCAR is the Earth's atmosphere -- but because the Sun is responsible for the energy input at the top of the atmosphere and for the particle flux underlying disruptive "space weather" events, HAO is the NCAR laboratory devoted to solar physics. My job was to maintain a connection between this group of several dozen solar physicists and the wider astrophysics community -- using stars to provide a broader context for our understanding of the Sun, and ensuring that stellar research could benefit from the laboratory's detailed knowledge of our local star.

Life as a hard money scientist was good. In addition to having access to a 12-month salary without the requirement of writing grant proposals, each scientist was allocated a modest annual travel stipend while internal funds also paid for journal page charges and even helped bring in scientific visitors. In return, we worked on large-scale and long-term projects that were not amenable to funding through standard three-year grants, often with a focus on serving the scientific community with new modeling capabilities or public data. The primary disadvantage of being an astronomer in a solar physics laboratory was the difficulty of finding students and postdocs. Unlike a university environment where students are the lifeblood, only a few students could be supported by internal fellowships at HAO. Postdocs were also hard to find, since most of the fellowship applicants were interested in solar physics, not astronomy. Consequently, like many hard money scientists I still wrote grant proposals to help recruit students and postdocs, and to provide part of my salary.

Perhaps the greatest source of anxiety for a hard money scientist is the annual drama of the federal budget cycle. Flat budgets at the federal level generally translate into a flat budget for the NSF and all of its programs. As everyone knows, a flat budget in the face of rising operating costs really means a cut. When the budgets do get increased for inflation, salary levels within each laboratory are supposed to be adjusted according to merit -- but in reality the extra funds either disappear entirely to offset a previous budget shortfall, or they are distributed evenly among the staff to compensate for the years without a cost of living adjustment. The leadership in Washington certainly recognizes the importance of scientific research as an engine of economic growth and innovation (read the America COMPETES Act), but these lofty pronouncements rarely seem to be reflected in national budget priorities.

Nobody needs to be reminded of the chaos surrounding the most recent federal budget cycles. A series of short-term "continuing resolutions" to fund the government at 2010 levels ultimately led to a budget for 2011 that finally passed more than halfway through the fiscal year. By this time the NSF and its programs were already preparing budget scenarios for 2012, and the partisan rancor in Washington made it clear that difficult decisions were unavoidable. It was in this atmosphere that HAO concluded it could no longer support stellar research, and I was given 12 months notice that my position would be eliminated. Despite outstanding annual performance reviews and wide ranging contributions to programs across the organization, changing priorities motivated by federal budget cuts ended my career as a hard money scientist.

Fortunately there are other ways to survive as a research scientist. After my final year on hard money, I hope to continue working at NCAR for another year or so on soft money. In the longer term, I will probably need to seek an environment with lower overhead expenses to continue funding myself on grants. As a graduate student I formed a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research and public education, thinking that it could always be my backup plan in case a hard money position didn't materialize. This unexpected career transition may be just the impetus I needed to build on this foundation, and hopefully make a soft landing on soft money. Wish me luck.