Background on the Research Applications Lab

About This Plan

This document is the strategic plan of the Research Applications Laboratory (RAL), one of four laboratories in the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It describes RAL’s mission, vision, broad goals, and priorities for the next five years. This plan is used in the ongoing process of program management and program development, and provides the basis for more detailed program and budget decisions that occur on an annual basis.

This strategic plan continues and extends the previous plan written in 2006. It is well aligned with the strategic plans of NCAR, UCAR, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and shows how RAL contributes to the goals of the parent organizations. The plan builds on RAL’s demonstrated success in directed research and in executing efficient procedures for technology transfer, on the experience of its staff over the past twenty-seven years, and on advice provided by its Advisory Panel.

This plan is not a comprehensive description of RAL projects and activities; rather, it attempts to show the Laboratories overall direction, an overview of essential ongoing efforts (termed imperatives), and a description of frontier areas that are yet unfunded opportunities over the next five years. Much more detailed descriptions of the items addressed here – and of many other RAL research, technology transfer, education, and service activities – can be found on the RAL web site (www.ral.ucar.edu) and in the RAL Annual Report. While the present plan is not comprehensive, it is, on the other hand, not written in the lean terms sometimes associated with strategic plans. It lays out where we are trying to be in five years, given our vision, mission, values, and the environment in which we live and work, combined with an assessment of what the program will be accomplishing in the next few years based on what is being done today. To aid the reader, a list of acronym definitions is included at the end of the document.

RAL Mission and Structure

The Research Applications Laboratory represents a focused activity in directed research and technology transfer within NCAR. Although NCAR as a whole is largely supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), RAL receives most of its funding from other sources such as domestic and international government agencies and private companies interested in exploiting the latest weather technologies. The RAL mission may be stated succinctly as:

The RAL mission contributes directly to the overarching goal expressed in the NCAR and NSF strategic plans:


A hallmark of RAL's effort has been building programs directly with the operational agencies, stakeholders, and end users, and keeping their requirements in focus at each step of the research and development process.

RAL has grown from its origins as a small research program at NCAR in the early 1980s to its current status as one of the four Laboratories of NCAR, with six divisions as shown below. The staff is comprised of approximately 200 persons with a diverse set of skills and experience in the physical sciences, social sciences, mathematics, software engineering, project management and administration.

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The Laboratory is managed through its Executive Committee, which is comprised of the RAL Director (who also serves as an NCAR Associate Director), the Deputy Director, the RAL Administrator, and the Directors of the programs listed above. This management team provides oversight and direction to a strong cadre of middle-level managers who are given both authority and responsibility for leading the many projects within RAL.

Vision and Values

RAL Vision


Achieving this vision requires the willingness and ability to work in an interdisciplinary way with teammates inside the Laboratory, with other units of NCAR, with stakeholders, and with a host of colleagues in universities, federal laboratories, and the private sector. Ensuring that people, projects, and programs are woven into a diverse, but coherent whole is a primary objective of RAL management.

Earlier this year the scope of the Research Applications Laboratory was expanded by the addition of the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment (ISSE) with which the Lab had a number of strong previous connections.

Operating Principles and Associated Values

A consideration of the operating principles that contribute to a group's success and that define its fabric and culture may be considered to reflect the values that it holds. For RAL these include:

  • Recognition of the importance of excellence and maintaining the highest possible scientific and engineering standards
  • Recognition of the importance of specialized knowledge and expertise, as well as breadth of interest and experience and ability to see the big picture
  • Recognition of the value of multidisciplinary teamwork, both within the Laboratory and more broadly with members of the research and operational communities, as well as with stakeholders on specific projects
  • Recognition of the importance of systematic validation of all our products; this includes a rigorous scientific evaluation of the inherent skill of the product; it also includes an evaluation of the operational benefits that can be derived from the product
  • Creation of opportunities for staff to grow professionally and to contribute to the development, application and transfer of fundamental scientific and technological understanding
  • Creation and maintenance of a workplace in which openness, transparency, respect and trust are fostered, and in which diversity of background and diversity of approach are respected
  • Creation and maintenance of a working environment in which people can be creative, ask hard questions, and take risks
  • An entrepreneurial approach to program development that continually seeks new ways to apply knowledge and expertise to societal needs
  • A strong connection with sponsors and stakeholders extending from the initial stage of identifying their needs, capabilities, and constraints through the delivery of solutions
  • Conduct of programs with a diverse set of government and non-government sponsors both nationally and internationally

Building Advocacy

In pursuing its vision, RAL sees the important need to advocate on behalf of both the science and operational communities for the transfer of weather- and climate-related technologies that serve end-user needs. For many years RAL has emphasized the transportation, national defense and water resources communities; these efforts will continue and expand. New advocacy efforts will be launched in the alternative energy, homeland security, agriculture, air quality, wildland fire, retailing and public service sectors to convince members of these communities that advanced weather- and climate-related technologies can significantly increase the safety and efficiency of their operations. Much of this advocacy will come in the form of social science studies that provide an underpinning for decision makers in these communities.

Liaison to Stakeholders

Given RAL's strong relationships with decision-makers in business and industry, with local, national, and international governmental bodies and agencies, and with non-governmental organizations, RAL seeks to remain a catalyst in connecting science and society. Policy questions and information needs will be considered as research plans are developed. RAL will investigate decision making processes and develop decision-support mechanisms to help ensure efficient and effective application of science to societal needs. Both research and operational goals will be pursued in model development. RAL will seek engagement with those interested in the atmospheric, social and Earth system sciences, will conduct its work in an open and transparent manner, and will pro-actively inform the public about its programs and results.

Context of RAL's work

In a Rapidly-Changing World

RAL's success over the past two and a half decades has been highly correlated with its ability to foresee problems that evolving communities and technologies face as they are exposed to weather hazards. Two decades ago it was common for organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to design very large systems without factoring in the effects of weather hazards. That is not true today in large part because of RAL's ability to convince FAA managers that such systems could not operate with sufficient safety or efficiency without incorporating weather information. Surface transportation planners and designers have adopted similar practices, again largely due to RAL and its partner organizations playing an early role in developing weather resilient systems and infrastructure.

In our planning process, certain assumptions must be made about critical national imperatives that will drive public funding for research. As an example, the following assumption was made in the 2006 strategic plan:


This assumption led RAL to begin early program development in the areas of alternative energy, transportation and hydrometeorology, and to begin to better define an area referred to as "climate services" as a part of its mission. Similar reasoning led RAL to get involved more deeply in the atmospheric side of homeland security and public safety issues more than ten years ago.

An End-to-End R&D Process

NCAR's founder, Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, promoted "Science in Service to Society" from the earliest days of NCAR's history. RAL adopted that theme to describe its primary mission. In order for this mission to be carried out successfully, a process that is sometimes referred to as "end-to-end R&D" must be employed. The process begins with basic science (physical and social), which is always the foundation of any successful effort to transfer technology. The process continues with directed research and development aimed at tailored solutions to specific weather and climate problems. The end point is the delivery of a new technology that increases productivity, safety, mobility or efficiency within some operational environment or social science results that provide a basis for making difficult decisions. RAL participates in all phases of this cycle, with careful assessment of the science and its readiness for application, thoughtful discussions with the user community about real needs and the readiness to accept and exploit new capabilities, and focused attention on the necessary human and computational resources (on both the developer and recipient sides) required to test, validate and deliver the technology. In the last step, it is usually critical that operational stakeholders receive suitable training to use the new technology.

While the phrase "end-to-end" is commonly used, a term like "spiral development" more accurately portrays the iterative development process between researcher/developer and user that is almost always necessary for successful technology transfer. Careful attention to user needs will need to be a continued hallmark of RAL's work.

Need for On-Going Program Development

With its overwhelming fraction of soft money support, RAL will remain dedicated to an on-going effort in program development. Given the uncertain timing in which these efforts bear fruit, the Laboratory is of necessity opportunistic in addressing specific issues, and must remain agile in its ability to design, propose, and take on new projects. At the same time, RAL is increasing its interactions every year with the other management units at NCAR, and its expertise is sought out and cross-utilized by other groups in the same way that RAL programs seek to entrain colleagues in other parts of NCAR and in the universities. RAL scientists and engineers will continue to contribute to, and occasionally to lead, large flagship programs bringing multidisciplinary teams together at NCAR.

Interactions with Sponsors and Other Stakeholders

RAL is committed to ensuring that its research and the products it delivers to its sponsors reflect the highest quality science and technology allowed by project budgets and timetables. This requires RAL to become intimately knowledgeable of a sponsor's detailed needs and requirements. This takes some time and patience on the part of both parties, but has proven to be a key element in completing a successful transfer of technology or an accurate focus on relevant social issues. We will continue to make this investment of time and energy as we develop new programs as part of this strategic plan.

Dialogue in the "Art of the Possible"

Experience has taught that as a new project is designed in partnership with a sponsor, neither party tends to have a clear understanding of the exact nature of the scientific or technological package to be delivered, or, in fact, the problem to be solved. To design the project as effectively as possible, RAL attempts to engage the sponsor in a dialogue concerning the "art of the possible." By this is meant an interactive process whereby each party, with its pre-conceived notion of the problem and the deliverable, begins to exchange information regarding what might be possible on the science and technology side and what changes in operating procedures might occur if these changes were deployed for the sponsor. This normally results in a much more detailed understanding of the sponsor's real needs as compared to perceived needs, and an in-depth understanding of the sponsor's decision process. Both parties typically shift their thinking to a commonly agreed on set of needs, requirements and definition of the deliverable. This iterative process, which has worked well, will continue to be applied in future projects.

Sponsor's Role in Guiding the R&D

Having established the goals of the program as outlined above, the next essential step is to guide the research and development carefully so that the deliverable is focused (and sometimes re-focused, within the constraints of time and budget) to meet the needs of the sponsor. Two mechanisms are employed to allow the sponsor to guide the R&D from beginning to end: a) formal feedback from user groups (typically operational stakeholders from the sponsor's community) who work regularly with RAL developers and provide input on interim developments; and b) frequent program reviews with senior managers in the sponsoring organization who can approve work done and make mid-course corrections. This collaborative development process prevents sponsors from being disappointed at the end of the technology transfer, a possibility in many industrial procurements where the sponsor and developer may have different visions of the deliverable.

Evaluating Program Success

Scientific and Operational Validation of Work

The scientific validation of meteorological forecast products is an essential step in determining their utility and represents an important part of our work. Developing improved techniques for forecast validation is a scientific research topic in its own right, and one in which RAL will strive to maintain a strong program.

From the viewpoint of technology transfer and the end user, the operational evaluation of forecast products is equally important. How useful is the capability to the customer? What are the actual efficiency and safety gains attained? What is the anecdotal feedback from the "front lines" regarding whether the product is helpful to their decision process? Such subjective evaluations are often as informative as formal benefit/cost studies, are more readily obtained, and are commonly the primary basis for establishing customer satisfaction.

The operational evaluation is critical in that it literally takes the science and technology out of the laboratory and puts it into a societal, operational setting. All aspects of the technology can be evaluated from the sponsor's perspective and modifications made if necessary. Where possible, this type of validation starts well before the final phase of the project.

Other General Metrics of Output, Outcome, and Impact

RAL's success in technology transfer will largely be measured in several ways:

  • In the eyes of our sponsor, has RAL met its obligations to deliver the highest quality science and technology to their operational domain?
  • Has RAL established a long-running, collaborative and mutually trusting relationship with its sponsor?
  • Has RAL's work led to a higher level of safety, productivity, or efficiency in the sponsor's activity?
  • Have RAL's activities satisfied or exceeded the sponsor's needs to the point that the sponsor wishes to continue the relationship?
  • Is RAL tracking and contributing to scientific and technical breakthroughs, and using these as guiding principles to meet its sponsor's future needs?

RAL will also be measured within the NSF, NCAR and university communities by how well it has contributed to their broad missions. These include not only the topic of technology transfer and its focus on service to society, but also other topics including:

  • The advancement of fundamental scientific knowledge through research and collaboration with scientists in other parts of NCAR, the universities, and other laboratories
  • The timely publication of peer-reviewed papers
  • Education and Outreach to national and international groups
  • Support to the community through
    • Development and support of community models
    • Service on national and international advisory panels, editorial boards, National Academy of Science committees, etc
    • Advice to governments and non-governmental organizations as requested
    • Planning and chairing national and international conferences, and leading or participating in field campaigns
    • Service on academic thesis committees
    • Advocacy for the broad atmospheric sciences with government agencies and weather-sensitive industries
    • Leading and organizing the research community to meet operational needs

In addition to the general metrics outlined above, specific measurements of success are given for each of the specific goals listed in the following chapters.