The Princeton entity that most directly benefits from government spending is the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, a research laboratory within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the U.S. Department of Commerce. It is entirely government-funded, and its staff of 155 federal employees operates under a $20 million annual budget from its headquarters on Princeton Forrestal Campus, studying the effects of climate and climate change throughout the world.
It is not merely institutional boasting. GFDL is the world’s main climate modeling and research agency, and it stands as a model for what government money can do. Without GFDL, the world might not have found out how much trouble it is in from global warming. Nor would people around the world be able to brace for severe weather with the speed at which they now can.
“It is virtually certain that GFDL would not be able to continue as it exists today, as a collaborative group of some of the world’s top climate scientists, if it was not funded by the U.S. government,” says Brian Gross, above, deputy director of the lab. Its research is aligned to meet NOAA mission goals in climate — in particular to understand climate variability and change. “We in turn will offer society the best possible climate information on which to base its decisions,” Gross says.
Like government itself, though, GFDL’s research moves at a glacial pace. Things the lab are looking into right now will not be ready for public perusal for another 10 to 20 years. “The lead time that characterizes GFDL’s research projects are atypical of the private sector,” Gross says. “Our global warming research began in the late 1960s and has culminated in several of our scientists being named as co-recipients of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize” (awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which GFDL scientists participate).
Research on hurricane prediction that began in the 1970s led to the development of the operational hurricane prediction system that the National Weather Service has used since 1995 for providing the U.S. with forecasts of hurricane tracks, Gross says. Combining these two research activities over the last decade has led to the first realistic study on how global warming affects hurricane activity. “It is difficult to imagine these accomplishments being achieved without government funding over the long term,” he says.
GFDL’s principal tool in performing its research are numerical models that must run on the world’s largest supercomputers — an extremely difficult task for the private sector to accomplish. Nine out of the top ten supercomputers worldwide, in fact, are government systems.
Gross, who took over as deputy director at GFDL in 2003, received his Ph.D. in atmospheric science from the University of Colorado in 1989. After serving as a postdoc at NASA/GSFC and GFDL, Gross joined NOAA in 1993 and built the first version of the non-hydrostatic model now being used to study hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin. He also had the technical lead on the GFDL supercomputer procurement in 2000, and led the lab’s modeling services group.
GFDL supports a great deal of research that results in strong collaborations with scientists outside the lab. The Cooperative Institute for Climate Science (CICS), for example, is a collaboration between Princeton University and GFDL that carries out basic research in the climate sciences. Money doesn’t necessarily come easy, however. GFDL has to meet an annual set of performance measures to demonstrate progress in research and undergo quadrennial reviews in order for funding to be considered.
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, 201 Princeton Forrestal Campus, Box 308, Princeton 08542-0308; 609-452-6500; fax, 609-987-5063. V. Ramaswamy, director. Home page: www.gfdl.noaa.gov