Commerce’ best idea.

Today’s subject may not be Commerce’ best idea…but it’s certainly in the Top Ten.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has been on the federal landscape for more than a century. First established by President Theodore Roosevelt as the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 (the Labor bit was peeled away in 1907), Commerce was intended to be the nation’s statistical agency, responsible for all economic statistics with the exception of those dealing with agriculture. [The USDA had been around for a dozen years at that time and was a political powerhouse, even then]. Not surprisingly, given its origins, Commerce has a venerable reputation in science and technology. It is home to the National Institutes for Science and Technology (NIST – formerly the National Bureau of Standards) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In addition, it houses Census, responsible for characterizing the Nation’s demographics; a host of economic agencies tracking GDP, balance of trade, a host of leading economic indicators; and much more. It could be argued that the intellectual thread tying Commerce together and making it a complete whole is the measurement of quantities difficult to measure. [Think the population of the homeless; Planck’s constant; fish stocks; the present state of the world’s weather; global warming; international balance of payments…] Commerce can point to over a century of accomplishment.

Even against that backdrop, however, one innovation stands out…the establishment of joint institutes connecting the Commerce Department with research universities. Coincidentally, several of these celebrate major anniversaries this year. The trailblazer was established in Boulder, Colorado, 50 years ago…the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, linking the University of Colorado with NBS/NIST. NOAA’s first joint institute…the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, followed five years later, again with the University of Colorado. CIRES celebrated its 45th anniversary this past Friday. [Today the NOAA joint institutes with universities number in the high teens.]

The idea is simple conceptually. Establish an entity in the boundary-space that would otherwise separate the federal agency and the university. Populate it with professional staff from each. Add staff employed directly by the joint institute, using funding from either the university or the agency, or soft money obtained by proposals jointly written to others. Use the resources…the people and the funds, and over time a growing arsenal of facilities and physical plant…to spark innovation. Entirely new basic research. Activities that harness the pre-existing work of both federal agency and university to new societal benefit. Education and outreach. Create flexible hiring alternatives…a blend of short- and longer-term appointments, hiring of foreign nationals…that provide workarounds for cumbersome federal hiring procedures and hidebound academic traditions that make it awkward to offer alternatives to tenure-track positions, etc. Offer blue-sky freedom and flexibility and nimbleness and unlimited scope that attract young scientists and helps them decide they can forego traditional government and university security, at least for a while.

Mix and stir as contents come to a boil…

…and in the case of CIRES, for example, you get such outcomes as…a state-of-the-art airborne chemistry program, developing sensors for flights on NASA, NOAA, and NSF aircraft, both piloted and unmanned; climate-change modeling studies; sea-ice monitoring and interpretation; use of geodetic data from space to infer glacial ice mass and processes, and much, much more.

It would be easy to fill post after post of this blog with descriptions of such science, but the researchers can tell the story best in their own words. Are you interested? You might take the time to explore the CIRES website and the links therein.

Some general observations:

CIRES’ size. Depending on how you count, CIRES currently employs some 600-700 staff, working on the CU Boulder campus, or in the Boulder NOAA labs, or at CIRES itself. Funding is at the $70M/year level. CIRES, by itself, represents much of all the scientific program growth at NOAA-Boulder over its lifetime. [It should be noted that CIRES is far larger than any of the other NOAA joint institutes that have followed.]

Social science and policy research at CIRES. Remarkably, the University leadership of the 1960’s had hoped that CIRES would incorporate social sciences in the mix from the first. A prescient vision, but ahead of its time! It remained for Susan Avery, CIRES director from 1994-2004, to establish The Center for Science&Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) in CIRES and bring in Roger Pielke, Jr. as its first director in 2002. That Center celebrated its 10th anniversary this past week as well. CSTPR, like its parent, CIRES, has punched above its weight during these ten years, in large part because of Dr. Pielke’s energy and vision. Here’s an indicator: this 10th anniversary was considered sufficiently important that Dr. John P.  Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, took the occasion to drop by and make keynote remarks. All this might prompt us to wonder…how might public policy toward science and science for public policy be more advanced and effective today had such work at CIRES gotten an earlier start and had more time to develop and exert its influence?

Looked at the other way, what if there had been no joint institutes through this period? Imagine trying to start such enterprises today without some precedent to point the way. Given the current skittishness about all such boundary enterprises, and the way that today leaders are tempted to focus on any potential risks such initiatives might pose to their institutional parents as opposed to the opportunities they open, the competition for the resources they represent, etc., it’s easy to imagine that barriers to entry would be prohibitive today.

CIRES’ people. Finally, it might be argued that the most important  contributions CIRES, its embedded Centers, and similar enterprises make is the development of people, who then go on to have an expanded impact across our community. Among these…Susan Avery, currently the Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Franco Einaudi, the first Visiting Fellow of CIRES and director for all of earth sciences at NASA-Goddard for many years, Waleed Abdalati, who is currently NASA’s Chief Scientist, and Roger Pielke himself.

Bravo, CIRES!

And to the U.S. Department of Commerce, good job!

But there’s more work to be done. If CIRES is ever to celebrate its 90th birthday, it will have to transform itself completely during that period, perhaps more than once.

And if the Department of Commerce is to be as relevant at the end of this century as it is today, it will have to reinvent itself as well.  A good place to start would be to explore ways and means for establishing similar joint enterprises connecting the public- and private sectors. The maintenance of critical infrastructure such as Earth observations, science, and services; the building of community resilience to hazards; and many other societal goals could use myriad such exploratory entities.

They’d be a nice complement to those public-sector-academic institutions.

And they’d transform America’s 21st-century prospects and world standing.

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