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Behind-the-scenes practices at the heart of NCCOS’s scientific research

Gary C. MatlockWorld–class coastal ocean science—the kind that involves ongoing planning and coordination with end–user communities and cutting–edge research technologies and methods—doesn’t just happen. In the case of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), it’s the ongoing product of nearly 400 scientists and professionals committed by training and philosophy to meeting their goal of cost–effective, information–driven coastal ecosystems management.

It would be easy—and it’s tempting—to resort here to the “herding cats” analogy so popular in this context. Let’s not.

Let’s instead go right to the conductor of this ocean science counterpart to the orchestral symphony: NCCOS Director Gary C. Matlock, Ph.D. In this one–on–one question and answer session, Matlock addresses some of the critical behind–the–scenes practices that lie at the heart of NCCOS’s scientific research activities.

A CCFHR employee with another NOAA employee preparing a dropsonde. (Credit: Lauren Chhay)

A CCFHR employee with another NOAA employee preparing a dropsonde. (Credit: Lauren Chhay)

NCCOS appears unusual as a federal scientific research agency in that it both conducts its own original coastal ocean science research and also manages an aggressive competitive grants process by which experts beyond NCCOS’s four walls carry out their own research. Can you initially give us some glimpse into the nature of the agency’s scientific work force?

GM: Well, the very nature of the NCCOS mission—informing effective coastal ecosystem management through production of world-class science—drives the need for a diverse workforce and capabilities. Our workforce is comprised of about 180 full–time federal employees and nearly 200 contract scientists and other professionals who work together to help our agency fulfill its mission with excellence.

For example, as a research organization NCCOS needs state–of–the–art technology to succeed. However, it doesn’t make sense for us to rely only on federal employees to meet that need. So, we have a core group of federal Information Technologists who oversee and guide how we apply technology to meet our mission. Then we rely on contractors to keep us informed about new trends in a rapidly changing technological environment, and to help implement these technologies across the office. This approach is cost–effective and helps us to meet our diverse technology needs.

Another CCFHR employee checking the multibeam sonar. (Credit: Amy V. Uhrin)

Another CCFHR employee checking the multibeam sonar. (Credit: Amy V. Uhrin)

We can return to that point, but I want to comment also on the second part of your question—NCCOS as the manager of a competitive grants program. This aspect of our work really is critical to understanding who we are and what we do. Each year we administer a competitive, peer–reviewed grant program that funds research on issues of importance to NOAA and the nation. We determine what the most pressing needs are for our nation’s coastal resource managers and then request proposals for the kind of research necessary to meet those needs. Scientists from universities, resource management agencies and other scientific research organizations compete for these federal research dollars. In other words, they compete for a chance to help us meet our mission objectives.

In any given year, those funds support anywhere from 100 to 400 outside experts who are conducting important scientific investigations. These projects multiply the impact of our own internal research efforts, and this is part of how we diversify our capabilities to meet our mission.

In the context of attracting and maintaining a committed and highly professional scientific work force, let’s discuss an issue that might fall into the “dirty words” category for any program manager—”brain drain.” It’s pretty clear that many critical federal agencies dating back to around the start of the big push for environmental research are facing the loss of highly skilled workers approaching retirement age. Is that an issue for NCCOS?

GM: It’s always a concern, but we’ve been exceptionally fortunate at NCCOS in that we’ve been able to cultivate a stable, scientific workforce thus far. So, we’re not as threatened by a rush of imminent retirements, at least not when compared to some other federal research agencies.

CCEHBR employees pipetting in the lab.

CCEHBR employees pipetting in the lab.

However, the loss of expert staff having decades of “institutional memory” is a daunting prospect to the manager of any research organization, whether it’s federal, private or academic. The concern is that retiring employees will take with them their accumulated and cumulative experience, training and knowledge, all of which are critical to the continuity of the organization. Really, it’s an issue that every organization faces, whether they’re geared toward scientific research or civil service generally. It’s just a function of “baby boomers” moving through the workforce.

At NCCOS, we are dealing with this reality in two ways. First, we recognize and accept that retirements are, indeed, going to happen. Second, we are proactive, trying very hard to plan and prepare for the transition before those retirements occur.

This discussion actually brings me back to the point we touched on earlier. Our contract workers, in many cases, work alongside those civil servants whose retirements are approaching. In these cases, much of the institutional memory and know–how from our senior staff is being transmitted daily to our “pool of future talent,” as I’ll call it. By making use of a contract workforce, we are actually increasing the pool of potential recruits and simultaneously preserving information that can make the so–called “brain drain” transition less problematic.

CCFHR employee working underwater, watching a manta swim by. (Credit: Shay Viehman)

CCFHR employee working underwater, watching a manta swim by. (Credit: Shay Viehman)

You’ve spoken in the past about the priority you place on seeing NCCOS research results moving, if you will, from the laboratory to actual practical application and utility, perhaps much like an assembly line product is really only useful as that product is put into practice in the real world. Does that strategy also somehow fit into your meeting your mission objectives through your workforce practices?

GM: In fact, it’s absolutely central to what we are trying to do. In NCCOS, we routinely measure how well we transition our scientific work from research to applications for meaningful purposes. It is important for our work to be useful. Measuring success in this way forces us to undertake broader distribution and outreach of our research products and services. We go beyond merely publishing our work in scientific journals for an audience of our peers.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re extremely proud of our staff’s many professional journal and peer–reviewed publications, and we support and encourage those efforts. However, they’re really not the period at the end of the sentence, so to speak, but rather just the start of our story–telling.

We’ve been placing a premium on seeing our scientific research achieve practical benefits in the field for coastal resource managers and all of our partners. Our work on domoic acid test kits in the Pacific Northwest, our harmful algal bloom and ecological forecasting work, and our extensive public education and outreach activities are among numerous examples here. And through those efforts, we can see these research–to–application successes translate into increased research funding opportunities for our scientists. They also benefit NCCOS employees through additional recognition throughout Commerce Department and National Ocean Service awards systems.

CCMA employee working in his office

CCMA employee working in his office

I think there’s another important distinction about how we go about managing our federal staff. We’ve touched on both recruitment and retention of a highly skilled workforce, but I want to put a bit of a twist on that discussion. Our goal at NCCOS is not to just retain bright, talented and capable workers. Rather, we want to provide them with opportunities to maximize their professional growth and development. Of course, we want to do so in a way that simultaneously advances our ability to meet our agency’s objectives and helps our employees achieve their own career and professional goals.

In some cases, this means that we actively encourage our federal staff to undertake temporary details, meaning they take a short–term job assignment in another agency or in a different office within NOAA. Both NCCOS and the employee benefit from that kind of cross–fertilization. I really believe that our holistic approach to our workforce is what helps NCCOS continue to attract the most capable people.

It sounds good in theory, Dr. Matlock, but when you come right down to it, aren’t those same strategies and tools available to all federal agencies? Is what NCCOS is doing in any way unique or different from what your counterpart agencies are doing?

Another CCFHR employee photographing a coral. (Credit: John Burke)

Another CCFHR employee photographing a coral. (Credit: John Burke)

GM: That’s a fair question, and there’s no doubt that this arsenal of tools is available throughout the federal sector. I’m certain that many agencies use a few of these approaches in their own workforce practices.

However, I think what distinguishes NCCOS in this respect is our reliance on the complete set of tools, and our broad application of them. The distinctions earned by our employees and contractors are evidence of our success. We’re constantly probing how many of our workforce are being recognized both within and beyond NOAA for the work they’re doing. We’re regularly exploring how their work not only forwards our own mission objectives, but also how it transitions into applications and operational activities. In other words, how what we do here ends up showing up in other arenas, and so forth. Consistently, our workforce is achieving that distinction.

Another important metric in looking at any federal work force—how it measures up in reflecting the ever–changing and quickly changing demographic profile of our nation’s diverse population. Is that a ball you can effectively juggle while at the same time making progress in these other areas we’ve discussed?

GM: Workforce diversity, too, is an absolutely critical measure of success for NCCOS. Diversity in our workforce is important to achieve because of how we want to do our work and how we want our workforce to be judged by others. We’ve achieved a lot in that regard, and you can be sure that it didn’t just happen by accident.

We regularly conduct evaluations related to workforce diversity, whether for a small group of employees or for an entire research center. Experts who are entirely independent of NCCOS examine our programs and interview our managers. We regularly review those results and adapt our programs accordingly, and we’re seeing results.

The Deputy Director of NCCOS and a summer 2008 intern. (Credit: Randy Cho)

The Deputy Director of NCCOS and a summer 2008 intern. (Credit: Randy Cho)

For instance, the NCCOS workforce is about 50 percent female and about 50 percent male. Having a balanced workforce in terms of gender is unusual among federal scientific offices. We’re striving to have a more diverse workforce in other respects as well, including hiring scientists from minority groups that are traditionally under–represented in the sciences. We have aggressive programs in place to help identify and train promising young, minority scientists so that we can increase their exposure to NCCOS.

The NOAA Educational Partnership Program, for instance, has created the Environmental Cooperative Science Center with a number of minority–serving institutions, or MSIs. I serve as the Technical Monitor to one of those centers. Our goal for NCCOS, and NOS in general, is to increase the capacities of those MSIs so they can increase the number of minority graduates in the marine sciences. In Alaska, for instance, NCCOS has invested about $700,000 over the past four years in the University of Alaska–Fairbanks and the College of Rural Alaska’s Tribal Management Program to establish a certification in Tribal natural resource management for Alaska Natives interested in environmental sciences.

CCMA employees working at NOAA

CCMA employees working at NOAA

All of this, in the end, is part of the crucial background story which, while largely invisible to the outside world, not only helps NCCOS meet its mission, but also helps ensure that we continue producing the kind of coastal ocean science results that best meet the changing needs of NOAA and our nation.

In a way, I guess you could say “it’s all in the day’s work.” Yet, it’s also what makes coming to work at NCCOS such a stimulating and worthwhile opportunity for so many of us.

Shorter web link for sharing: http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/news/?p=660

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