A Conversation with Dr. Brendan P. Kelly, Deputy Director of NSF’s Arctic Sciences Division

Photo courtesy: Melanie DuchinDr. Kelly has studied arctic marine mammals, their sea ice environment, and the cultural significance of this ecosystem to indigenous communities for over three decades. Prior to the NSF appointment, he was at NOAA's National Marine Mammal Laboratory and the University of Alaska where he led investigations regarding the impact of sea-loss on arctic seal populations. Photo courtesy: Melanie Duchin

Earlier this spring Witness the Arctic (WTA) had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Brendan P. Kelly (BPK). We asked a few questions about his new role as Deputy Director at NSF's Division of Arctic Sciences. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

WTA: The Deputy Director for the Division of Arctic Sciences is a new position charged to represent NSF as Executive Director of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) and to develop a strategic vision for the Division of Arctic Sciences. As the Division's first Deputy Director, what do you see as the most interesting challenges and opportunities of this position?

BPK: The position attracted me for a number of reasons—chiefly because it came with mandates but didn't over-proscribe how to achieve them. Figuring that out is part of the job.

It's also important to understand the history here. In my view the staff and program directors have always been stretched thin in the Arctic Division. Program staff and directors work very long hours to keep the funding cycle going, and I know they suffer a fair amount of frustration from the insufficient time to devote to long range and big picture issues. So, the creation of this Deputy Director position is really a significant investment toward strategic planning within the NSF office as well as among all the federal agencies. Having somebody devoted to working on these issues can free everybody to take a step back and spend a little more time looking at the big picture. For me personally, it's a great opportunity to contribute to making the Arctic Sciences Division even more effective than it already is.

Managing intellectual talent is always an interesting challenge to me, which is magnified in the case of scientific research in the Arctic. The rapid pace of change in the biological, social, and physical environment we're observing—and the incredible need to forecast and respond to that change—challenges the pace of scientific research, which tends to proceed at a more measured pace.

Nationally and internationally we're blessed with tremendous scientific talents, and we have fabulous technologies. Realizing the full value of these technologies and intellectual talent requires cohesiveness in the community and a really high level of communication. That's difficult to achieve with changes coming along very very rapidly. We really need to figure out how we can accelerate not only the pace of investigation but also the dissemination of new findings. Those are huge challenges for all of us, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute in my new position.

WTA: One of your duties will be to represent NSF as Executive Director of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC). What is your vision of a highly functioning IARPC?

BPK: To me, a highly functioning IARPC would be one in which every member is certain that time invested in IARPC meetings is more than compensated by the boost to their own agency objectives. In other words, IARPC would make them more effective in meeting the objectives of their particular agencies.

I think a huge part of getting people to look at IARPC as a positive tool in their kit is developing a shared vision of what the research community as a whole needs to accomplish. There have been several good efforts in the community to develop a shared vision, and a lot of progress has been made. I think to a certain extent, some of those efforts have suffered in that they've been cast in too much of an academic research light without simultaneously making it clear to the mission agencies how their work would be facilitated by the shared vision. Again, in a highly functioning IARPC, all the members and all the participants would see their own agency objective, and their own work, in the context of a shared vision. So, in continuing the efforts to forge that shared vision it's an issue of getting people to engage in the conversation and have faith that it's a worthwhile venture—not just another couple hours taken out of their busy lives.

WTA: Assuming your vision was realized, how would that impact arctic science?

BPK: I think we would see more rapid progress in gaining knowledge and understanding the Arctic simply because we'd have more effective leveraging of resources, whether they're human resources or ships or aircraft or technologies. A whole lot of what managing intellectual talent is about is connecting the right players at the right time, and you have to have someone who is there to make sure the pieces are being connected. IARPC needs to be playing that role by having members who are that engaged—who are aware of what is going on in their agencies and are able to figure out which connections need to be made between agencies. And this is huge, right? These are big agencies. But that's the culture we need to create. When we have people who can see and make the connections that are being missed I think we'll see some pretty big leaps in our scientific progress.

WTA: How would it affect the way the various agencies in IARPC work together?

BPK: What we need are strong relationships between the agencies that are characterized by individuals who are attuned to each other's communication styles and understand each other's motivation. That stuff happens over time with repeated interactions between people who really want to make things work. There is also a tension between the need to build these interpersonal relationships and the need to build a structure with institutional memory not strictly dependent on the personalities. You want to build a robust community that will survive the inevitable turnover of individuals.

That's the tension that we have to keep in everybody's mind; while it's good to be working well with somebody in another agency, it's important to find a way to diffuse what is learned back home within their own agency. This takes a lot of active work. So, within IARPC itself I'll start by asking members about their plans to make sure that people in their agency, at various levels and offices scattered around the country, are benefiting from these conversations.

WTA: What would be the implication for multi-agency programs such as the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) and the Arctic Observing Network (AON)?

BPK: Having IARPC functioning at a higher level would go a long way toward propelling any sort of multi-agency programs like SEARCH and AON, rather than those programs dragging IARPC along like an anchor.

WTA: In your remarks to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) during their January meeting you mentioned that you were conducting a listening tour during the first weeks in your new position, asking community members about their concerns and hopes for IARPC. What did you hear from the community?

BPK: First, I'll say that the listening tour continues and I am still learning. But I will mention what's become clear already is the broad sense that IARPC has failed to realize its potential. At the same time, people seem to have a renewed hope that the combination of NSF dedicating a position to work on IARPC coupled with chartering IARPC as an interagency subcommittee under the National Science and Technology Council will help it realize its potential. So it's clear there's been disappointment in the past and that with these changes people seem quite hopeful.

More specifically, USARC has asked for an update to the five-year research plan and a budget that shows where money is being spent. Those are already under way within IARPC.

WTA: In response to climate change, do you see a shift in interagency attention toward strategic concerns in the Arctic such as national security, military preparedness, transportation needs, natural resource management, and energy security? How might a shift in concerns influence the coordination of arctic research?

BPK: Well, certainly there has been that shift. My sense is that this shift has elevated arctic science to be of much more than academic interest and has stimulated a much stronger interest across the mission agencies. And I'll just say that this is an opportunity that we dare not miss. There is a great deal of interest that we should harness—this is a time when it is really important that we function well across agencies.

WTA: How is the strategic vision for the Division of Arctic Sciences being developed?

BPK: It is just beginning to evolve; we are planning a retreat within the Division in early summer to bring out ideas and tap the knowledge of program officers and staff who have a tremendous history and perspective—that's a great potential. We'll also engage the Office Advisory Committee not only to inform the vision but also to inform the process of how to build that vision. Obviously it has to be an iterative process. We welcome ideas from anybody and everybody in the community on how to best proceed.

WTA: Will this strategic vision impact the way business is done in the Division of Arctic Sciences?

BPK: Yes, I think it very well could. I'm very encouraged by preliminary discussion within the Division. We recognize that the community is changing and we'd like to propel the enterprise. People are open to potentially very different ways of doing business. Earlier I talked about how the routine workload on program officers can hinder big picture thinking. People in the Division are stretched pretty thin. That's what I want to be addressed in the vision. Do we need to do something structurally different? Do we need to change the way the proposal and review enterprise works?

I hope we can think very wisely about the possibilities so that we can support the best possible science. I'm amazed by the amount of human resources that goes into every single proposal: starting with the PIs who generate the idea, write it up, interact with colleagues, and get the proposal reviewed within their institution. There is substantial investment before the project arrives in NSF's Fastlane. At the Foundation, there's a huge investment of resources: vetting the proposal to make sure it fits all the criteria, the ad hoc review panels, and tremendous attention from program officers. Then, after this huge investment of resources, the most likely outcome is that the project will not get funded.

Along the way we are burying everybody. During the 5-day review panel, really smart people are given 15 minutes to present their brilliant ideas—it's a daunting process for both the review panel and program officers. I worry that it's hard for them to step back and ask how each project fits into the overall vision. I want to be convinced that we're doing everything we can structurally to promote people at all levels of the process being able to keep their eyes on the big picture. I've got a real sense that people want to engage in these issues. My role is to allow a process to evolve for these discussions so that staff and program officers are energized by the potential.

WTA: Dr. Kelly, thank you for sharing your thoughts about the challenges and opportunities facing the arctic research community at this time.

BPK: It's been a pleasure; hopefully we'll see more of this kind of conversation in the near future.

For information about the April 2011 IARPC Principal Members meeting, see the IARPC article in the Interagency News section. For further information about IARPC, please see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/arctic/iarpc/start.jsp or contact Brendan P. Kelly (bkelly [at] nsf.gov).