Behind the Scenes: Creating a Research Institute

HOW TO BAKE A CICOES:  Prepare ingredients ahead of time. Preheat oven to Hot. Then take one UW JISAO, add two universities and a handful of freshly picked research themes, stir in over 200 scientists from Corvallis to Fairbanks, bake at high pressure for sixty days…. and voilà, a delicious new CICOES.

By Tom Van Pelt, for JISAO Magazine

That’s the short version. The full story of how we moved from JISAO to CICOES is a bit more complicated. Now that the dust has settled and we’re getting comfortable with our new institute, a new name, new logo, and new partners, it’s a story worth a brief look back.

NOAA’s Cooperative Institutes (CIs) facilitate collaborative research among academic and federal scientists, in support of NOAA goals. But CIs are not set up as permanent institutes — instead they are intentionally dynamic with five-year funding cycles that can be renewed once. Every ten years, the NOAA CI office defines a new or updated set of research priorities, and a competition is held to create the new CI. Existing CIs and any interested groups must prepare competitive proposals.

University of Washington

Around September 2019, JISAO Director John Horne began to organize preparation to respond to the expected CI invitation for proposals, formally called a “Notice of Funding Opportunity” (NOFO). At that time, we didn’t have any concrete information on exactly when the NOFO would be announced or what it would contain, but Horne was busy reading the tea leaves of prior proposal timing and reaching out to directors at other CIs for insights.

We did know that we’d only have a short 60-day window between announcement of the NOFO and the deadline for submission of a full proposal. Our first preparatory step was to establish a work group including JISAO PIs tapped to be ‘theme leads’ to build momentum for rapid response and, crucially, for out-of-the-box thinking to look beyond our usual horizons.

A proposal for a new JISAO couldn’t just be iterative. It would need to describe the ongoing strength and capability of JISAO with its four-decade track record, and at the same time articulate a clear and innovative vision for response to the priorities listed in the NOFO, with the small complication that we wouldn’t know what those priorities would be until the day of the NOFO announcement!

After initial meetings of the work group, built around a hypothetical set of ‘best guess’ priority themes, we received our version of an October surprise: on Halloween, the NOFO hit the streets, entitled “Competition for a Cooperative Institute for the Pacific Northwest and Polar Regions”. Polar Regions? A quick scan of the NOFO revealed nine research themes defined as priorities, shaping the structure of the proposal. Five of the themes had reasonable overlap with the draft themes we’d been gaming out in our preparatory meetings, but four themes were unexpected: aquaculture science, human dimensions, data science, and polar studies.

Across its 42-year history, JISAO was always a University of Washington CI, but now that the NOFO’s scientific breadth was coming into focus, Horne and team were wrestling with a major decision. Should JISAO’s proposal for the next ten years continue the single-institution approach, or should we invite partner institutions to form a consortium?

After much discussion among JISAO leadership, CoE leaders, potential consortium partners, and colleagues in other CI consortia, we committed to proposing a consortium CI, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Oregon State University joining the team. Horne envisioned a nested structure, with the proposed CI consisting of a Seattle-based ‘Research Institute’ that would continue to include CI staff at NOAA labs including PMEL, AFSC, and NFSC, plus a ‘Regional Consortium’ to encompass affiliated faculty and staff at UAF and OSU.

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Now it was action stations and all-hands-on-deck time. Horne led a realignment of the work group to match the nine science themes, and UAF and OSU colleagues were invited in. With some collaborative self-identification of motivated scientists, and plenty of shepherding in the form of suggested outlines and structuring, the work group dove into building out the proposed research to take the new CI five to ten years into the future.

We settled on a three-level structure, forming the science narrative around the nine themes at the top level, then describing three to five broad research ‘programs’ within each theme, and finally showcasing a number of more focused and actionable ‘program elements’ within each program.  This phase was a real challenge — we needed to minimize overlap and balance effort to meet NOAA priorities and vision, while taking care to develop the proposal independent of direct involvement by NOAA colleagues.

We worked with representatives from the UW College Of the Environment and UW Marketing and Communications to create a logo that represents both our partnership and our broad range of research themes. The new logo (top of page) was designed by Alanya Cannon, the UW Director of Brand Management.

During the initial preparation phase, a small team consisting of myself, Horne, and Nick Bond began meeting for weekly strategy sessions, and we kept that going through the whole November and December period. Those sessions helped us track how the thinking and writing was going in each group and helped steer the overall structure of the proposal. Having a team of three ‘sous chefs’ wound up being very useful, as we were able to pool our contacts with different groups of folks doing different parts of the writing. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge of facilitating connection and communication and helping navigate the sometimes-bumpy pathway of building the proposal.  And it was a great immersion in the diversity and depth of JISAO and partner university research capabilities.

One key aspect was engagement of the excellent network of prior and current JISAO partners around the scientific community. Outreach to other academic departments combined with input from many of the scientists within JISAO and the proposed Regional Consortium partners at UAF and OSU ensured full coverage of the nine research themes —not only science but also societal relevance.

At the same time, the core JISAO admin staff together with CoE leaders and consortium colleagues launched parallel tracks to tackle the administrative and fiscal requirements laid out in the NOFO. We also undertook a big effort to catalog and describe the extremely deep and broad set of research assets that the new CI would encompass, with an infrastructure footprint spanning southern Oregon to the Arctic.

Oregon State University

By late November, the eruption of scientific vision and planning was starting to be distilled into shape. Horne had installed a moon-launch-style countdown clock in Wallace Hall, with glowing red numbers illustrating how quickly the short 60-day preparation window was flying by. Right through Thanksgiving and into December, a blizzard of in-person meetings BC (Before Covid) plus myriad email and phone call discussions resulted in all the proposal contributions coalescing by mid-December, guided by the strictly page-limited outline that Horne and the lead team built early in the process.

The core writing squad then enjoyed a less-festive-than-usual Christmas and New Year, striving make the January 3rd submission deadline. A final scramble of editing, integrating, crosschecking, navigation of internal reviews, and sign-offs across departments at UW, OSU, and UAF, culminated in the successful submission of the proposal package with a few hours to spare. Phew!

In recognition of the major expansion in scope as a consortium, a new name introduced our proposal: CICOES – the Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean, and Ecosystem Studies. After a few months of suspense, the proposal was accepted and CICOES officially started July 1, 2020.

The scientific reach of JISAO over its 40+ years was always broad and visionary. The structure of our ‘new and renewed’ three-university CICOES spans a vast stretch of North Pacific coastline, from Port Orford to Utqiaġvik, and its scientific reach stretches from pole to pole, from the deep ocean through the atmosphere. The sky and the ocean horizon are literally the limits for continuing our ongoing research and bringing to fruition some of the ambitious new collaborations and programs that emerged from the hot oven of the proposal process.

JISAO Magazine