Covering science news around Boulder

NCAR Mesa Laboratory

By Travis Metcalfe

Since the end of World War II, Boulder has been transformed from a sleepy college town to a Mecca for scientists from around the world. Several years ago, Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado (CU) began collaborating with the Boulder Weekly to publish a monthly “Lab Notes” column covering recent science news from a local perspective. The initial articles tackled misconceptions about climate change and evaluated the potential for life in the universe, but then the column quietly disappeared. This month we are pleased to announce the resurrection of the series for at least one year with support from White Dwarf Research Corporation, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research and public education.

With four government labs around Boulder, many of the scientific discoveries that make the news have some connection to local researchers. Harvard astrophysicist Walter Orr Roberts brought the High Altitude Observatory to Boulder in the late 1940s, expanding in 1960 to establish the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was created in 1970 by Richard Nixon, but its predecessor (the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory) had been operating here since the early 1950s. The National Bureau of Standards was also in town back then, but it wasn’t renamed the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) until 1988. Jimmy Carter established the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1974, which became the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 1991 under George H.W. Bush.

The labs have been like a magnet for scientists, who were attracted to Boulder and quickly discovered that they couldn’t leave. As this army of Ph.Ds piled higher and deeper over the decades, new research institutes and non-profit organizations were established to absorb them. The Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics ( JILA) was formed in 1962 by NIST and CU. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) came to town in 1976 and began operating with support from NOAA and CU in 1982. Grant-funded researchers at CU created the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) in 1985, while several non-profit organizations sprouted up in the 1990s around similar concepts: Space Science Institute (SSI) in 1992, a division of Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in 1994, and a branch of Northwest Research Associates (NWRA) in 1998. Boulder now boasts the largest number of PhDs per capita of any city in the nation, at 8.2 percent in 2012.

I am one of the many scientists who came to Boulder and decided to stay. I arrived in 2004 to work at NCAR with a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. I was hired as a staff scientist two years later, and I spent the next six years working to understand the structure and dynamics of the sun using observations of other nearby stars. In 2012, when the full impact of the Great Recession finally hit the government, I lost my dream job to federal budget cuts. As local scientists have been doing for decades, I stayed in town and supported my research by writing grant proposals — in my case primarily to NASA. In the past few years, I have been using the Kepler space telescope to study planetary systems around other stars.

After several years of writing grant proposals to make a living, I finally realized what I missed most about my dream job at NCAR. One of my responsibilities as a staff scientist at a federally-funded laboratory was to share my enthusiasm for science with the general public. I took this obligation seriously, writing a monthly column on starstuff.blogspot.com to explain the latest scientific discoveries in the simplest terms, and to provide more context and background than is typically offered in the news. Over the next year I hope to do something similar for the monthly articles in the Lab Notes series, with a special focus on the cutting-edge research that is being done right here in Boulder.

Science journalism is on the decline across the media landscape, and even where it persists the reporters have very little background in science. Some of the labs around town have offices to issue press releases and to connect their scientists to journalists. For the government labs these offices are sometimes headquartered in Washington D.C., while the smaller local research institutes may not have the resources to support media outreach. Only the largest news organizations have staff assigned specifically to cover science, so even these limited efforts tend to be directed at national outlets. Local connections can be lost in the shuffle. Even in the best cases, many scientists have a hard time articulating their research at a level that the public can appreciate, and journalists have difficulty translating complex results into simple language. Boulder is home to a wealth of scientific expertise, and it would be a shame not to make it more accessible to everyone in our community.