When your autonomous vehicle goes autocratic.

The March3-9 print edition of The Economist had a great special report on autonomous vehicles. Actually “great” as a modifier to Economist special article is redundant; all their reports are worth the read and this one was no exception. Tom Standage does a masterful job of driving the reader through the future landscape of such vehicles, suggesting they’ll change the world as the automobile itself has done over the century just past. He explores the technical issues; the emerging competition among carmakers, IT leaders, startups, and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft; the awkward aspects of the transition period we’re entering; and much more.

That “much more” includes an inventory of foreseen and unforeseen consequences: reductions in deaths and injuries (and reductions in organ donations); reductions in congestion and the need for urban parking acreage, associated with the rise of ride-sharing; the commercial world arriving at our doorsteps; cars that could be reshaped and outfitted as workout platforms, beauty salons, etc.; and additional infringements on privacy; possible new forms of segregation, reduced access and much more.

The report even acknowledges that meteorology, especially snowfall (blanketing lane markers and other features helpful to onboard computers busily identifying automobile position) poses challenges that have yet to be addressed.

A lot to process!

As thorough as the report is, however, it suffers from a blind spot – the same human blind spot that shapes our policies for dealing with weather hazards. That blind spot? A failure to learn from experience (following the aviation industry), and a reliance on emergency evacuation in the face of weather hazard as opposed to vigorous attention to land use and building codes that would make home the safest place to be, and shelter-in-place the preferred hazard response.

Here are three realities (or social preferences, whichever nomenclature you prefer). First, the transition to autonomous vehicles will occur on a time scale short compared with the lifetime of the nation’s building stock. That is, we will find ourselves in Autonomous Vehicle World before it will be safe to shelter in place, no matter how vigorously we might move to replace or retrofit building stocks with something safer. As a future hurricane approaches shore, thousands/millions of people in the path will still need to evacuate.

Second, current emergency response favors “mandatory” evacuation not just because of the short-term physical hazard posed to people in harm’s way, but also because an empty city is easier to manage during extreme weather than one teeming with people all facing a variety of special needs (for food, water power; emergency medical attention; protection from looters, etc.) Artificial intelligence will make it technically possible for emergency managers to do this. They might in principle take over control of vehicles during evacuations; ensure that vehicles don’t evacuate with only a single driver, but also pick up a couple of others who might need a ride, etc.

This concern might seem fanciful (“Americans would never allow such an infringement on their basic liberties”) but for the fact that autonomous vehicles are likely to be accompanied by widespread, nearly universal ridesharing, and a substantial drop in the number of vehicles on the road and a change in the ownership of those vehicles. Facing a need to evacuate, what will be the pricing structure for ridesharing vehicles? Barring regulation, what is to prevent the price-gouging already visible during peak commuter traffic, or evident in home and building repairs following a natural disaster, such as one of the hurricanes or wildfires the U.S. suffered during autumn of 2017? Will price and ability to pay alone determine access to vehicles? What are the implications for social equity in this arrangement? Would access instead be first-come, first-served? That has drawbacks too. Will ridesharing vehicles be commandeered to dump passengers off at nearby shelters (versus, say, a more distant home of a family member) to allow return visits to the hazard zone?

The Economist report suggests we’ll be better off individually and as a society to the extent we work out these and related policy issues in advance, versus belatedly discovering problems in the aftermath of a crisis.

It’s not too soon to begin thinking these problems through. Perhaps the process might spur efforts to build resilience in the built environment and critical infrastructure.

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“War” is in the air. WWCPD?

WWCPD… what would Colin Powell do?

There’s war in the air these days. The U.S. and Korea are at loggerheads. With great fanfare, Putin brags that Russia is developing nuclear arms able to avoid missile defenses. China is rapidly building and deploying its military, projecting power throughout the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, with one eye on the Arctic. Syria has attracted warriors from Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the U.S. in a particularly combustible mix. Pockets of conflict burn across the African continent.

The language of war has penetrated everyday discourse. Financial markets worldwide have been fidgety at the prospect of tariffs and “trade wars.”  There’s a “war” over gun-control. Then there’s immigration. Attorney General Sessions grumbles about sanctuary cities, and California’s Governor Jerry Brown has responded by saying the Trump administration was declaring war against the state.

This brings us to the war on science. For instance, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (unfortunately not accessible without a subscription), Steven Pinker has decried an intellectual war on science he says is wreaking havoc on research. (The article has prompted some publicly accessible commentary; here’s one example.)  Climate change denial  is framed as a war on humanity. Scientists appear to be entering the 2018 political arena in record numbers, “to combat the war on science.”

As individuals and as a species we’re pugnacious – quick to see a fight or pick one – and especially quick to use the rhetoric of war.

What could possibly go wrong?

Interesting that the folks most familiar with war and its horrors should be the most measured in the use of such language and the most reluctant to engage – the military. The military know that war should only be entered as a last resort, after all alternatives have been exhausted. This seemingly counter-intuitive bent has always been around, but it was articulated with special poignancy by Colin Powell prior to the first Persian Gulf War[1], in eight famous points now known as the Powell Doctrine:

The Powell Doctrine offers a list of questions that all should be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

As a corollary, Powell also argued that once embarking on a war a nation should use all its resources to achieve decisive force against the enemy, minimizing casualties and ending the conflict quickly by forcing the weaker force to capitulate. Implicit in this, especially the word capitulate, is the idea a nation goes to war or uses the rhetoric of war only against actual enemies, not just people with whom it might normally collaborate but with whom it’s currently estranged or in disagreement.

The application of the eight questions to war itself is clear enough, but in our polarized, fractious society of today, perhaps we’d all do well to ask whether we might think them through more generally and thoroughly before entering confrontation over policy or even scientific debate. In those contexts, we might ask:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened? Or are we making a mountain of a molehill?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective? Something a bit nobler than “winning” an argument?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? This answer is hardly ever “yes.”
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted? Again, the answer is rarely “yes.”
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? Or will hard feelings endure?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? Highly unlikely. After needed further  consideration – we should revisit (3.)
  7. Is the action supported by the American people? We should be hesitant, humble answering this one. Scientists in particular should avoid appearing entitled.
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support? Or – are we simply damaging our/America’s reputation?

Going a step further: implicitly, we all ask ourselves questions similar to these when engaging our spouses/life partners/parents/kids. If we choose to go to war at home, we’re usually using it as an excuse/pretext for busting up the relationship.

Note that according to Powell, all these questions should be answered affirmatively before going to war. A meteorological parallel: when I worked for NOAA in our Boulder laboratories, one of my colleagues was a wonderful meteorologist and great human being by the name of Charlie Chappell. His work spanned both cutting-edge research and operational practice. He used to say that “for the atmosphere to generate a tornado, seven conditions must be met. A lot of meteorologists become excited when they see six conditions satisfied, and they issue a warning that turns out to be a false alarm. All seven conditions have to be met.”

So, next time out, before we go to war verbally, or take to the streets in protest, let’s stop and consider whether we’ve thought things through, what we’re hoping to gain, Chances are good that if we’re as creative in thinking about alternative peaceable means as we choose to be about “waging war,” we’ll “give peace (another) chance.”

As we support our fellow scientists who are running for political office, or as we run for office ourselves, let’s engage in a positive spirit about both the process and the ends of politics. Let’s do it not thinking the political process would be improved by putting more scientists in charge so much as aspiring to put ourselves to work for public benefit.

And everyone – all parties, and the watching world – will be the better for it.


[1] reflecting the bitter U.S. experience in Vietnam,

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more on …the AMS journal Weather, Climate, and Society


ten years of environmental intelligence inside

Yesterday’s LOTRW post spoke to ten years of steady growth at the AMS journal Weather, Climate, and Society. But what matters most is not the age or the size… it’s the quality and breadth of the content. A sampling from Volume 10, Number 1 (all this and more is available online[1]):

Expressing Flood Likelihood: Return Period versus Probability

Margaret A. Grounds, Jared E. LeClerc, and Susan Joslyn

The likelihood of floods and other potentially destructive natural phenomena is often expressed as a return period or recurrence interval, such as a 100-yr flood. However, the expression might give users the impression that the event will occur exactly once within the described period, obscuring the intended probabilistic meaning. If so, users may think a flood is less likely when one has just occurred or more likely when it has not, leading to a “flood is due” effect. This hypothesis was tested experimentally in two studies reported here

Long a bugaboo of the risk communication and the weather, water, and climate communities. Some quantitative data behind the concern….

The Opportunities and Needs of Water Utility Professionals as Community Climate–Water Leaders

Karen Raucher, Robert Raucher, Kenan Ozekin, and Kristin Wegner

Community water is a key place Americans will personally experience climate change. A 2013 nationally representative survey found that 92% of Americans want their community water provider to be a leader in preparing their community for climate change, and that community water providers are highly trusted sources for climate information. These findings place water utility professionals on the front line of climate response…

The paper presents updates from a 2016 survey….

Thirty Years of Multilevel Processes for Adaptation of Livestock Production to Droughts in Uruguay

I. Cruz, W. Baethgen, D. Bartaburu, M. Bidegain, A. Giménez, M. Methol, H. Morales, V. Picasso, G. Podestá, R. Taddei, R. Terra, G. Tiscornia, and M. Vinocur

Most countries lack effective policies to manage climate risks, despite growing concerns with climate change. The authors analyzed the policy evolution from a disaster management to a risk management approach, using as a case study four agricultural droughts that impacted Uruguay’s livestock sector in the last three decades. A transdisciplinary team of researchers, extension workers, and policy makers agreed on a common conceptual framework for the interpretation of past droughts and policies. The evidence presented shows that the set of actions implemented at different levels when facing droughts were mainly reactive in the past but later evolved to a more integral risk management approach…

Growing at the Margins: Adaptation to Severe Weather in the Marginal Lands of the British Isles

Dorian Speakman

With the problem of severe weather events having significant impacts on harvests in Britain, this study has looked at how small-scale food producers use agroecology to adapt to adverse weather conditions; 23 sites growing food using agroecology across the British Isles in areas severely disadvantaged to agriculture were investigated. Because the climate in these areas is generally hostile to horticulture (often in combination with other factors such as land quality), all the participants have to adapt to the prevailing weather conditions and frequent severe weather events…

The Relationships among Actual Weather Events, Perceived Unusual Weather, Media Use, and Global Warming Belief Certainty in China

Xiao Wang and Lin Lin

Previous research revealed that if individuals personally experience an unusual weather event as a result of global warming (vs no personal experience), they may hold higher belief certainty that global warming is happening and hence develop more favorable attitudes toward mitigation actions. However, much of the previous research focused on self-reported personal experience and global warming beliefs using cross-sectional surveys; reverse causality is thus possible

Social Resilience to Climate-Related Disasters in Ancient Societies: A Test of Two Hypotheses

Peter N. Peregrine

Current literature on disaster response argues that societies providing greater local participation in decision-making and that have more community coordination and governance organizations are more resilient to climate-related disasters. In contrast, recent research in psychology has argued that societies with tighter social norms and greater enforcement of those norms are more resilient. This paper tests whether one or both of these seemingly competing perspectives can be empirically supported through an examination of the diachronic impact of climate-related disasters on ancient societies. A cross-cultural research design and a sample of 33 archaeologically known societies bracketing 22 catastrophic climate-related disasters are used to test two hypotheses about resilience to climate-related disasters. The paper finds that societies allowing greater political participation appear to provide greater resilience to catastrophic climate-related disasters, generally supporting the predominant perspective in contemporary disaster response. Printed the entire abstract here. Who knew such a study was even possible? Stunning.

The Value of Remotely Sensed Information: The Case of a GRACE-Enhanced Drought Severity Index

Richard Bernknopf, David Brookshire, Yusuke Kuwayama, Molly Macauley, Matthew Rodell, Alexandra Thompson, Peter Vail, and Benjamin Zaitchik

A decision framework is developed for quantifying the economic value of information (VOI) from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission for drought monitoring, with a focus on the potential contributions of groundwater storage and soil moisture measurements from the GRACE data assimilation (GRACE-DA) system. The study consists of (i) the development of a conceptual framework to evaluate the socioeconomic value of GRACE-DA as a contributing source of information to drought monitoring; (ii) structured listening sessions to understand the needs of stakeholders who are affected by drought monitoring; (iii) econometric analysis based on the conceptual framework that characterizes the contribution of GRACE-DA to the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) in capturing the effects of drought on the agricultural sector; and (iv) a demonstration of how the improved characterization of drought conditions may influence decisions made in a real-world drought disaster assistance program. Results show that GRACE-DA has the potential to lower the uncertainty associated with the understanding of drought and that this improved understanding has the potential to change policy decisions that lead to tangible societal benefits. Reprinted the entire abstract here as well. Reminder that economics is a social science, and an encouraging sign that science and technology can positively influence policymaking, despite the current media headlines to the contrary.


To repeat: the full texts of these papers are available at the link. What’s more, the papers omitted in this sample are every bit the equal in interest, importance and diversity of those highlighted here.

Breathtaking stuff.

Breathtaking – not just because there’s multi-disciplinary research virtuosity on display, though there’s plenty of that.

Breathtaking – because each of the bits of work being reported is adding more to our understanding, and construction of, the integrated framework connecting weather and climate to seven billion people – our hopes, aspirations, and realistic prospects. Our connections to weather and climate are intricately interwoven, strong in some ways and fragile in others, and constantly evolving in response to changes in society, technology, and the surface of our planet itself. It’s our greatest 21st-century adventure, and it’s being documented on these WCAS pages.


[1] Have a sneaking suspicion my laptop has been trying to tell me this link is available only if you have a subscription. If that’s the case, my apologies, but perhaps this’ll motivate you to take the plunge.

Also, an apology; in my enthusiasm I jumped the gun a bit. WCAS is at volume 10… but not quite ten. Yet. My bad.

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Weather, Climate and Society reaches ten years.

October 2009 and January 2018 issues of WCAS

This morning I came to work ready to tackle a workshop report and a research proposal that urgently need attention, but the mail in my chair decided me on a brief delay.

That’s because the stack included the latest print copy of the AMS journal, Weather, Climate, and Society, for January 2018.

Volume 10, Number 1. What a milestone!

For the AMS. Ten years ago the American Meteorological Society was approaching 90. For all of those years its purposes included (1) the advancement of science and technology, and (2) the application of those advances for societal benefit. The strategy for the former was clear and longstanding, revolving around technical conferences and comprising a range of journals. The approach to the latter included conferences for and certification of the broadcasters and those in government and the private sector producing operational forecast products. The consensus was that societal benefit from weather forecasts was limited primarily by the quality of those physical forecasts. Attention focused on their improvement. And improvement there was, thanks to new physical understanding, new observing platforms and instruments, and computing power.

Over the more recent past, however, societal benefit had failed to keep pace with improvements in forecasts of atmospheric conditions. The reasons? These were numerous but included limitations in communication of forecasts; insufficient attention to the links connecting weather conditions to economic and social impacts; little information for users about their options for action; inadequate characterization of uncertainty; and much more. It was time to be disciplined and structured not just in the development of meteorological information (broadly construed, to include not just weather but hydrology, climate, space weather, etc.) but also in the application of that information..

These realities posed a challenge for AMS staff, AMS volunteer leadership, and ultimately, every AMS member. Science – and the integrity of that science – would of course remain paramount. But should AMS sharpen its focus to study of the physical atmospheric and oceanic sciences per se, or should it expand and step up its activities to support the application of that science for societal benefit? To focus on the former would allow AMS to rely on existing resources and stay in its comfort zone. To do justice to the latter – an ambitious job – would carry both financial implications and risk.

After considerable discussion and debate, the AMS opted for the latter course. The implications have shaped every AMS action and decision since, but two of the more consequential decisions were (1) the establishment of an annual Symposium on Societal Applications, Policy Research, and Practice, and (2), standing up a new scientific journal, Weather Climate, and Society (WCAS), to be published quarterly.

The initial issue of WCAS was published in October of 2009. The first slim number contained only 90 pages; in the ten years since the issues have doubled or tripled in size, as the journal’s reputation has grown, the numbers of social scientists entering the research space have multiplied, and as AMS has adapted its business model for the journal, making it more congruent with practices elsewhere in the social sciences.

First and most recent issues of WCAS showing growth in submissions; starbucks coffee, business cards (and other desk clutter) provide scale. 🙂

None of this has been easy! To achieve this growth in submissions, breadth, and quality has required vision and sustained hard work from Keith Seitter, the AMS Executive Director, Ken Heideman, the AMS director of publications, and AMS editorial staff; from AMS volunteer leadership, including two Publications Commissioners, Dave Jorgensen and Bob Rauber; three chief editors, Roberta Balstad Miller, Amanda Lynch, and most recently Henry Huntington; and from their WCAS Editorial Board and the hundreds of authors who’ve been doing the research and writing the journal articles themselves.

For meteorology and social science, and for the larger world. But the accomplishment isn’t limited to the AMS per se; it’s changing our field – how we view ourselves and how others view us. WCAS and the related technical meetings at the intersection of meteorology, social science, and policy have shaped AMS priorities and impacts in subtle but important ways. Earth scientists or geoscientists or meteorologists and social scientists can today see career paths and opportunities without limit, spanning the physical and social sciences, public-, private, and academic sectors, and basic research and applications, with few constraining boundaries or barriers to impede progress. They can bring their attention and energies to bear on solving big challenges – capturing Earth’s energy-, water-, and agricultural bounty; building community-level resilience to hazards globally; protecting the environment, habitat, and ecosystems.

Increasingly, the larger society sees the Earth scientists and social scientists working in this space as pivotally important to national and global aspirations to live a little better, a little more safely, and a little longer on this generous but dangerous and fragile planet. They see community values of innovation, inclusion, and international reach as invitations to partner and collaborate to make a better world. And increasingly, political leaders, business leaders, and publics domestically and internationally are accepting that invitation.

And all this stemming from a single – and singular – technical journal.


Want to get a feel for how important WCAS will be at the end of AMS’ second century? Go back into the AMS archives and look at some of the 1870’s vintage Monthly Weather Reviews. Compare them with a current issue. The best is yet to come.

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Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria recovery: addenda


Hasn’t been 24 hours since the previous LOTRW post updating the progress of the 2017 hurricane season recovery efforts, but two news items in today’s print media caught my eye.

  1. From the Washington Post comes this news: an argument is brewing about disposition of Congressionally appropriated funds for Puerto Rican recovery. Will the much-needed dollars find their way to those on the island territory struggling to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Maria’s devastation? Or will they instead be diverted to line the pockets of bondholders of Puerto Rican debt? Steven Mufson writes:

The $16 billion aid package that Congress approved for Puerto Rico as part of the spending deal this month came as a relief to the territory’s government. It also came as a relief to its bondholders.

The price of Puerto Rican commonwealth bonds has soared since Congress passed the rescue package. Though the bankrupt territory has halted interest payments on its bonds, investors — including hedge funds — drove up the price of the general obligation bond due in 2035 by 11 percent on Feb. 14. The average price of the bond Friday was 32.01 cents on the dollar, up 26 percent for the week.

The source of investors’ hopes is a new Puerto Rican fiscal plan issued Feb. 12 that sharply raised the forecasts for cash flow and long-range sustainable debt that the territory had made before Congress acted. By fiscal 2023, the government will accumulate a $2.8 billion surplus, the plan predicts.

But the stronger forecasts raised fears among some lawmakers that the federal funds — earmarked for Medicaid, housing reconstruction and other repairs after Hurricane Maria — would indirectly flow to Puerto Rico’s bondholders.

“We need to be unambiguously clear that the money Congress approved was for rebuilding Puerto Rico and to aid its citizens, not to line the pockets of Wall Street investors that bought the Island’s debt on the cheap,” Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Friday. “It would be a moral outrage if money intended for Puerto Rico’s vulnerable was siphoned off to creditors and vulture funds.”

(The article provides further perspective on this issue.)

  1. And here’s a front-page story from this morning’s print edition of USA Today: Thousands of FEMA rescuers spent more time traveling, awaiting orders than on rescues. Some excerpts:

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Fire Department’s 80-person team of highly skilled rescuers crisscrossed the country last summer in a fleet of vehicles with an arsenal of tools, geared up to deal with anything hurricanes Harvey and Irma threw its way. 

The team was operating as part of the nation’s highly trained search-and-rescue force, deployed to provide assistance after natural disasters.

It spent more time traveling and awaiting orders and assignments than it did actively effecting rescues in the storm-ravaged disaster zones.

All told, the Phoenix team assisted in directly rescuing 17 people, according to department records, a fraction of the thousands of people rescued or assisted by hurricane-response efforts. It was reimbursed $3 million by the U.S. government.

It wasn’t alone in being underused.

Thousands of the country’s most highly skilled rescuers who deployed to hurricane-hit regions of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico spent more time traveling and awaiting orders than they did rescuing residents, racking up an anticipated $92 million in reimbursement claims from the cash-strapped Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Arizona Republic has found.  

The at-times-underwhelming number of physical rescues, coupled with the costly mobilization of more than 6,000 members of FEMA’s National Urban Search and Rescue, program raises questions about how to more efficiently use the vaunted network of versatile, highly skilled first responders…

…FEMA National Urban Search and Rescue teams are the national Swiss Army knife of emergency response, able to handle anything from rescues in post-earthquake rubble to dangerous water evacuations. Interviews and records from FEMA and some of the 28 search-and-rescue teams across the country detail their responses to last summer’s onslaught of hurricanes. 

Colorado’s initial 45-member team of specially trained rescuers mobilized to a rural Texas airport, where they loaded evacuees’ bags onto awaiting planes. The team was repeatedly reassigned and staged, ending up in Florida where members searched wind-ravaged neighborhoods. 

And during its 11-day Texas deployment, records show 80 members from a Los Angeles team tasked with primary searches and rescues encountered more “animal issues” — 64 — than they did evacuations — 56. 

Delays in task assignments amid the constantly changing emergencies resulted in many rescuers driving thousands of miles across the country, only to be left to stage at military bases, where they trained and waited to use their skills.  

…Some National Urban Search and Rescue teams were exceedingly busy, like Texas task forces that rescued almost 900 people by air and ground and evacuated nearly 12,000 people, according to department records. They appear to have been some of the most active groups in what became one of the biggest mobilizations in the history of the system. 

Others, however, were far outpaced in urgent rescues by local first responders, non-governmental rescue groups and volunteers with boats, which frustrated many on the elite teams that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to help.

What happened during last summer’s hurricanes has some calling for the program to be improved in an era of never-ending natural disasters.  

(A quick parenthesis: astronomically high costs for evacuations are nothing new – in fact, they don’t reveal inefficiencies that need to be cleaned up so much as they reflect an inescapable reality of emergency response. For example, during and immediately following Hurricane Katrina, the Hospital Corporation of America spent tens of millions of dollars to evacuate several hundreds of patients from the Tulane University hospital and a few other HCA facilities affected by the storm. The HCA Annual Report of that year tells the tale, and makes interesting reading.)

Bill Read’s comment on the previous LOTRW post sums this up. After noting that recovery is the Achilles heel of disaster, and documenting how the Hurricane Harvey recovery looks on the ground, he closes:

The sheer magnitude of the disaster here has added considerably to the long drawn out recovery. Time will tell if proposed policy to build resilience into the area reaches fruition. Plenty of support for the good ideas but when it comes to paying for the changes support dwindles. As many floods as we have had over the past two decades, I would hope people realize we cannot go forward business as usual.

Well said, Bill! “Recovery” after disaster is an oxymoron. No one affected is ever made whole. As today’s news items make clear, emergency response and recovery share this in common: of necessity, both are chaotic, inefficient, messy, flawed – and expensive beyond imagining. As Americans, we live on some of the most hazardous real estate on the planet. We can and should do more to build community resilience – which is generally far less costly than the alternative.

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Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria recovery: miscellaneous updates.

Five months after the devastating 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, recovery remains an elusive goal for many who found themselves in harm’s way. Contributing to the problem was a long delay in Congressional passage of desperately needed appropriations (recall that damage estimates for the three hurricanes totaled some $300B). In September 2017 Congress passed a $15B supplemental appropriation measure for Hurricane Harvey, just as Hurricane Irma was poised to hit. This was followed by a $36B appropriation in October, but by this time the funds were needed for Hurricane Maria as well as for California wildfires. Another $90B was appropriated, but only this month, after being held up by larger budget debates, federal shutdowns, and other Washington drama. Awareness is building that recovery will by no means be complete before the region is tested by another hurricane season.

A few vignettes on where things stand:

Hurricane Harvey and the Texas coast. Federal funds are trickling into the affected area, unevenly reaching those impacted. A few thousand people were still living in FEMA-funded motels in mid-January, but ten times as many had applied for FEMA aid; estimates are that many people displaced by the hurricane are still living with family or friends, waiting for work on their homes to be completed (or even started). Most received far less aid than they need to rebuild. Moreover, many homeowners attempting to rebuild have been stymied by homeowner association (HOA) rules. Houston’s criminal justice center was flooded; although trials resumed in October, the court system is still working through a backlog. And long-term efforts to reduce future vulnerability remain unaddressed.

Hurricane Irma. The most recent tranche of federal funds included over $2B for agricultural relief (some of which will also be allocated for agriculture affected by Harvey and Maria) and $17B to the US Army Corps of Engineers to construct flood and storm damage-reduction projects and potentially to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. A small addendum: NASA received $80M from the latest supplemental to be allocated to cover repairs to Kennedy Space Center and NASA’s Houston facilities.

Hurricane Maria. The news from Puerto Rico continues to be dire. This morning’s E&E newsletter EnergyWire gives an extensive update on efforts to restore electrical service to the island. Some excerpts: After making strides in late 2017 to restore major chunks of infrastructure and get the lights back on, the repair endeavor has entered a plateau. While most have electricity, it is unclear how much longer those in the dark will have to wait…

…”The bulk of the work that is left is the hardest, requiring helicopter support and long commutes to remote, hard-to-access job sites,” said Jay Field, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which was assigned by the Trump administration to lead the recovery. “Weather is also an issue due to rain and heavy winds.”

Last week, the island’s unified grid-restoration command said that it expects to have 90 to 95 percent of the territory’s power restored by March 31…

…. The pace of recovery has been complicated by overlapping lines of authority and Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy. While the Army Corps is in charge of overall recovery, much of the repair work is being done by PREPA, which is $9 billion in debt.

A new strain of uncertainty arrived last week, when the federal judge overseeing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy proceedings, Laura Taylor Swain, rejected PREPA’s plea for a $550 million loan and asked it to look for other sources of funds.

In response, PREPA said it would start reducing output at some of its power plants because it couldn’t afford fuel. The utility told the court in a filing that the scenario “exacerbated the risk to an already fragile system and leaves it vulnerable to outages and resulting in brownouts on the island.”

(the full article merits a read).

Bottom line? As a nation we’re grossly underestimating the pain and disruption that disasters inflict. As a result, we’re underinvesting in actions and measures that would mitigate such tragedy and loss. In particular, we’re underinvesting in technologies such as NASA Earth observations, hydrological models at the NOAA-USGS-USACE National Water Center, Census Bureau’s OntheMap, and data analytics. Taken together, these and similar technologies, and efforts to build public awareness such as the NWS Weather-Ready Nation, would allow early detection of the buildup of disaster vulnerability and risk, prior to disaster, and thus motivate and guide pre-event disaster reduction actions and measures at a cost far less than the any subsequent cost of disaster recovery itself.

Time to move in that direction.

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The FY 2019 budget.

“The President proposes, the Congress disposes.” – old Washington, DC adage

Historically, U.S. presidents haven’t always submitted budgets to the Congress. In fact, prior to 1921, formulation of the budget was a jealously guarded Congressional prerogative. But as government grew, the increasing complexity and scale of the task began to overwhelm Congressional analytical resources. This led to the watershed Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. The Act consolidated spending agencies in both the executive and legislative branches. In particular, the Act established the Bureau of the Budget, which has since morphed into OMB, and a General Accounting Office (which would later become today’s Government Accountability Office). From that time forward, the president has been required to submit an annual budget for the entire federal government to the Congress.

Historians and political scientists have since observed that this milestone significantly eroded the separation of powers envisaged by the Founding Fathers, in effect establishing the President as Legislator-in-Chief, and institutionalizing the modern-day presidency.

It’s useful to remember that the President’s budget is never the last word; instead, as today’s quote reminds us, it’s a mere proposal – a point of departure for hearty debate and discussion across both the Senate and House, between the two chambers, and with the executive branch itself about what the final budget might look like. That’s a good thing; the resulting dialog, however polarized, can often lead to enhanced outcomes. Many opportunities for such improvement come to mind. Here are two or three of possible parochial interest to LOTRW readers.

The legislative outline for rebuilding infrastructure in America.

This material accompanied the budget; it addresses incentives; rural infrastructure; transformative projects; financing; public lands; disposition of federal real property; and federal capital financing in turn. Its 50-some pages provide a lot of detail, and merit reading in their entirety (and there’s already an extensive and growing amount of analysis out there as well). The Outline leads off in this way:

States and localities are best equipped [emphasis added] to understand the infrastructure investments needs of their communities. The infrastructure incentives program, described below, would encourage increased State, local, and private investment in infrastructure. This program would provide for targeted Federal investments, encourage innovation, streamline project delivery, and help transform the way infrastructure is designed, built, and maintained. Under this program, States and localities would receive incentives in the form of grants. Project sponsors selected for award would execute an agreement with express progress milestones. Federal incentive funds would be conditioned upon achieving the milestones within identified time frames…

… The Incentives Program would provide support to wide-ranging classes of assets, including the following governmental infrastructure: surface transportation and airports, passenger rail, ports and waterways, flood control, water supply, hydropower, water resources, drinking water facilities, wastewater facilities, stormwater facilities, and Brownfield and Superfund sites.

The assets/infrastructure covered include most of what the ASCE and other groups have described as critically important and needing perhaps $4 trillion in upgrades; to accomplish this the ASCE recommends increasing investment from all levels of government and the private sector from 2.5% of GDP to 3.5%.

Concerns and suggested amendments to this infrastructure are coming in from all corners. Much focuses on sale of airports and other assets, reliance on private-sector funding, etc. Rather than duplicate all that here, let’s suggest changing a single word – replacing “equipped” in the text above with the word “positioned,” and then reflect for a moment on the implications of that edit.

To say that localities are “equipped” to (understand their needs) is to suggest they have the analytical capability at their disposal needed to assess the adequacy of their infrastructure, relative to the future demands asked of it, the hazards and threats to continuity it will face, and so on. If they were so equipped, they might indeed be best “positioned” to make the call with respect to allocation of finite resources, taking into account this knowledge. In particular, they likely wouldn’t need to be told what to do on the basis of some top-down, command-and-control cookie-cutter kind of approach to infrastructure management imposed at a remote federal level.

The reality at the local level is somewhat different. Many communities if not most lack the environmental intelligence that could help them make their strategic planning effective. While they don’t necessarily need federal regulation, they could use information on their community demographics and trends in those demographics over the lifetime of the infrastructure in question: the prevailing climate; the likelihood of extremes of flood and drought, earthquakes, etc.; changes in landscape, habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystems; and the sensitivity of their community and its economy to such influences. Often such desired information is unavailable in any form; to develop it requires sustained federally funded R&D. Much of what is available is in federal hands; it needs to be made more accessible at the local level.

The good news is the steps required to develop and make available the needed environmental intelligence are inexpensive compared with the infrastructure costs per se.  That said, there are two clouds on the horizon:

1.Proposed budget cuts for the Earth sciences.

As reported by the American Institute of Physics, DoE budgets for biological and environmental sciences and energy efficiency and renewable energy; NASA Earth science missions; NOAA; USGS; EPA; and more – in short, essentially all efforts aimed at getting more information about how to live safely and successfully on our home planet – have been slated for substantial cuts.

2.Proposed budget cuts for STEM education, and for local access to federally-housed environmental intelligence.

Again, as reported by AIP, the education programs housed in respective science agencies – NASA, NOAA, and other agencies, as well as programs in those same agencies aimed at equipping local communities to make intelligent infrastructure investments, such as NOAA Sea Grant and the USGS Climate Science Centers, have also been slated for significant cuts or elimination.

These proposed cuts threaten to hamstring local and private-sector efforts to maintain and strengthen critical infrastructure. They will cramp efforts to grow the U.S. labor force needed to rebuild infrastructure. Worse, they would eliminate what up to now has been a U.S. competitive advantage in bidding for the some $100Trillion of infrastructure investment that will be made worldwide over the next two decades.  These proposed 2019 budget cuts, if enacted, could even lead to the perverse effect of incentivizing Chinese private infrastructure investment worldwide and perhaps even here in the United States at the expense  of our own.

Again, the good news: President and both houses/parties of Congress share common cause when it comes to rebuilding/maintaining infrastructure and creating American jobs; the program restorations needed to foster this amount to a few billion dollars, and the national conversation on the 2019 federal budget is in the early stages.

Let’s all stay in close touch.

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Scientists and Olympians, under stress, could do with more of the spirit of Zanshin, or… maybe something else.

Japanese archers

“Man is not troubled by events but rather how he interprets them.” – Epictetus

Surf the web a bit (does anyone use that expression any more?) and you’ll quickly conclude that today’s scientists are stressed. Non-scientists might think Of course! Who wouldn’t be frustrated by all that maddeningly esoteric mathematics and the vexations of experiments and field studies gone awry?

Actually, scientists love those bits (literally, in this digital age). Instead, the frustration comes from other figures: budget uncertainties for R&D. Administration cutbacks in the number, size, and field of play of science advisory committees. Unfilled scientific leadership positions in the White House and at federal agencies. Immigration limits barring talented foreign students who’d like to study science at U.S. universities. Low STEM scores from U.S. K-12 students. Statistics revealing widespread public skepticism with respect to the science on vaccinations, genetically-modified-organisms, climate change, and much more. The intrusion of today’s divisive politics into the scientific arena.

In reality, and relatively speaking, we scientists per se still have it pretty good. By and large, the great majority of us have benefited from a privileged upbringing and education. What we consider our “plight” pales beside that of the Dreamers, facing deportation to a “home” they’ve never known; of those addicted to opioids, who face lifelong suffering for a few bad early-life choices; of those abused and exploited by virtue of their gender or race; of those whose poverty and poor education challenge their efforts to find employment in today’s high-tech, globally connected world[1]. There’s no comparison. And that’s before we get to the turmoil and achingly difficult struggles of life in many other countries around the world.

But these days scientists are not alone in experiencing stress and doubt despite extraordinary good fortune.

We’re joined by Olympic athletes.

Think about it. Much like scientists as a general class, these gifted, remarkable men and women have been especially favored in every way they could possibly want. They’ve been selected over hundreds or thousands of other aspirants for participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics games. And that two-week, all-expenses-paid stay in PyeongChang is just the tip of the iceberg. To start, they were born with the right DNA, or close to it – they “chose” their parents well. They inherited their parents’ physical gifts and had those gifts recognized early on. Then, for months and in some cases years they’re received priceless personal medical attention, nutrition, and training, world travel and experiences and opportunities (that will extend for years into the future) that are lavished on only a handful of the world’s seven billion people.

They should be ecstatically happy!

But for now they’re sleepless, tossing and turning, struggling to maintain the optimal pre-event physical regimen (including that sleep they’re missing), dealing with their messed-up biological clocks, the relentless and often harshly critical media attention, and dark thoughts hanging over it all that this-is-my-once-in-a-lifetime-Olympic-shot-what-if-I-don’t-do-my-best. It’s that point in their competitive rhythm when all the aching physical work of years can be undone by lack of mental focus for a few minutes or even seconds – missing that tricky slalom gate, or failing to land that triple axel, or hesitation hopping into the bobsled at the top of the run.

They face this during every competition. But most matches are merely part of a season of competitions. Come up short in a particular one? No worries. Just apply yourself and do better next week.  Even at the global level, many competitions are annual; an athlete can count on multiple chances. But the four-year gap between Olympic events alters the calculus. In many of the events, few athletes can expect to maintain their peak for more than one. An injury, an illness, a lapse in concentration, and a career of effort “has been for nought.” Or four more years of demanding physical effort and doubt await.

To recap, scientists and Olympic athletes alike face stress; that stress threatens to compromise the focus both groups need if they’re to be most productive and successful; and (most importantly):

most of that stress is self-imposed.

We could stand to learn from athletes. Because their stress-onset is often acute, athletes may be more disciplined in their approach to stress management (acknowledging it; owning it; managing it) than the rest of us, for whom the stress might be more chronic, a constant in the background. Athletes accomplish this by understanding their circle of influence, distinguishing between those factors not under their control (downhill- or slalom run wind- and ice conditions, the level of competition, etc.) and those that are (their own body mechanics, actions, etc.) and concentrating on mastery of the latter.

This year’s Olympic venue is in Asia, where culture and philosophy of the martial arts (similar to competition) offer much guidance. Take just one example, Zanshin, a state of relaxed awareness and alertness in the martial arts, and one application – archery, or kyudo. This is a martial art, a form of competition, but is also viewed as a form of moral and spiritual development. Asian archers, and their martial counterparts, seek mushin, a state of “no mindedness,” that is, a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything – achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. Of course, eastern religions have no monopoly on ideas such as this; Jesus captured much the same thought when he said, do not worry.” And Epictetus proffered the same advice.

So, fellow scientists, if we want to keep moving science and technology forward, we might explore and develop practices of mindlessness with respect to the high stakes or frustrating conditions of our work.

Too complicated? Requiring too much self-discipline? Well, we could instead follow the example of half-pipe gold medalist snowboarder Chloe Kim – and eat ice cream.


[1] Of course, there are some scientists sprinkled through all these over-simplified categories.

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The future of meteorology… will be shaped by major social drivers.

What is the future of meteorology?

Meteorologists know their discipline and its advance will help shape society and the future, much as Lorenz’s butterfly, going about its business, mindlessly impacts the weather and even climate downstream. But in the interim, the butterfly necessarily maintains laser-focus on its immediate environment – e.g., local wind speed, direction, and gusts – calling to mind the “inspirational (???)” poster from Despair, Inc, In the battle between you and the world, bet on the world.

So it is with our profession. Our future is being shaped by powerful global drivers; these are grinding away everywhere, their progress breathlessly covered by news and social media. Take, for example, the contents of the current print issue of The Economist. Three of the major articles cover: (1) the announcement, to great fanfare, that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase are entering the field of health care; (2) why the academic arms race – the willy-nilly pursuit of advanced degrees – might need to end; and (3) in what ways the rise of populism worldwide reflects real problems that should be addressed and contains seeds of benefit.

Okay, Bill. Dramatic stuff to be sure. Is it an accident that the three in turn address the private-, academic and public sectors – the three pillars of the so-called Weather Enterprise? BTW, none of the three would seem to bear directly on the future of meteorology.

Point taken. But let’s dig a bit deeper into each:

(1) Everybody talks about the weather… and… everybody does something about it. More than a century ago, Mark Twain famously observed that nobody does anything about the weather. As it happens, his statement wasn’t even that true at the time[1]. Even as he spoke, Cleveland Abbe and others at the Army Signal Service were working hard at weather predictions. Their efforts would first morph into the Weather Bureau and ultimately into today’s National Weather Service, and an entire ecosystem of other national weather services and private-sector- and academic partners. These cross-sectoral contributions to space-borne, airborne, and surface observations, numerical modeling and forecasts, dissemination, and impact-based decision support are now so pervasive and thoroughly comingled as to defy teasing them apart.

Improvements in forecasts and their utility are rapid. More advances are coming, and the pace is picking up. While we remain limited in our ability to modify the weather, confidently knowing what’s coming allows us to capture weather’s benefits and more fully enjoy its variability and variety.

The Economist article on healthcare treats two aspects that find analogs here: the rising importance of big data to the overall healthcare process, and the concomitant rise of what the print edition’s cover calls “Dr. You.”  There’s much to this – the article itself merits a complete and careful read – but the core idea is that our individual health data, combined with artificial intelligence, will progressively permit us to take control of our individual healthcare and optimize our chances for a happier, healthier future in unprecedented ways.  Each of us is destined to become our own primary physician. Doubters might google IBM’s Watson work on oncology; that’ll uncover a mix of supportive material as well as some cautionary notes, but it’s easy to see the trend. And IBM is by no means the only player. A number of competing AI developmental efforts such as DeepMind are evolving rapidly. Microsoft is entering healthcare analytics. Recall that the version of IBM’s Deep Blue that beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997 filled a small room. The version of Watson that won at Jeopardy in 2011 was the size of three pizza boxes. By 2022, comparable capabilities of a variety of origins will likely fit in a handheld. – and be available to each of us.

Expect, therefore, today’s Alexa to be replaced by stunning capabilities, whether she loses her voice or not, while giving the weather forecast. How cool was that! (Yes, I watched the game Sunday night; my condolences to my colleagues at AMS Boston headquarters.)

If Watson-era devices can absorb the 6000 papers in oncology that are published every day, then tracking corresponding weather information should pose no particular challenge. The cognitive intelligence of the future will anticipate weather that affects you and me, integrate that with our individual scheduled activities and preferences, and help us optimize accordingly. We’ll become masters of our weather-impact-based decision support. We’ll all be meteorologists as well as doctors. What’s more, the analogy doesn’t stop there. Increasingly, we’re also becoming our own lawyers. Our own journalists. Our own tax accountants (think TurboTax).

And our own educators.

That brings us to:

(2) In this world context of the future, learning per se will not be so important as learning-to-learn.

This has always been true. Yet academic institutions ranging from elite universities to K-12 public schools vary in their embrace of this idea. An example: I started graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1964, in physics. At that time, their qualifying exam tested on all of physics. Students were expected to be acquainted with it all – and there was a lot to know. After one year, I transferred to the Department of Geophysical Sciences. Given the state of the science, a lot less to know, at that time! Better yet (from the viewpoint of all my peers) their qualifying exam didn’t test on everything. Instead the faculty asked students to prove they could master subjects as needed. They negotiated with students individually to agree upon three[2], and confined the questioning to those.

In the fifty-plus years since I’ve been constantly learning on the job. However long it’s been since your last graduation, you’ve been almost 100% engaged in such OJT as well. But over that period how you and I learn has changed. Increasingly we learn in DYI partnership with search engines, whose own capabilities have been expanding rapidly. Take a moment to reflect on how you spend your workday. Chances are good you’ll realize that whatever your task, you’re getting more skilled at framing questions for your search engines, and at the same time, by paying attention to your questions, your search engines are getting better at tailoring their answers to your needs, in much the same way as feet adjust to new shoes and vice versa.

For their part, employers seek knowledge workers whose experience blends a level of expertise in some core subject matter with an ability to connect that expertise with others to solve real-world problems. According to The Economist article, employers seeking to build their labor force face skill shortages, not education shortages. Yet they are using proof of the latter as an expensive surrogate for proof of the former, essentially using universities as front-end recruiters – and preferring credentials from high-end universities in the bargain. In effect this forces students and early-career professionals to pay for pricey masters-degree educations when there might be far less costly ways for them to demonstrate mastery of core competencies.

Unsurprising that this might lead to resentment – among those students caught up in this reality – but even more so among the vast majority of young people, who find themselves on the outside looking in. That disgruntlement is one of the contributors to:

(3) Populist political trends, both in the United States and worldwide.

Globalization and innovation are together creating new opportunities and vast wealth, but these opportunities and this wealth are unevenly distributed. The Gini coefficient that tracks such things shows inequality to be increasing nation-by-nation around the world.  This is one of the biggest stories of the past few decades, and results in no little part by the disenfranchisement of large numbers of the world’s peoples who are shut out from the benefits of 21st-century social change and technology advance. This marginalization is a contributing cause to much if not most of the polarization and factionalism in our society today.  These disenfranchised are largely those whom the K-12 public education system has failed – those who haven’t learned-how-to-learn or been taught how to think critically over the course of their education. They may get a first job after their formal studies end, but may be unable to adapt when that first job has run its course. They won’t get that same opportunity or enjoy that same success at being their own professional, whether doctor, lawyer, meteorologist – or educator. What’s more, they’re aware of this separation. They can readily see the dysfunction in the system, and all too naturally conclude it’s more evidence that the workplace playing field isn’t level – and favors “the elites.”

Bottom line? If you and I wish to live in a society that embraces innovation and prospers as the world changes, we might choose to get more involved in improving our local public education.  Over time, as our entire population learns-to-learn, we won’t grow apart; we’ll draw closer together. We’ll become community. We’ll be better doctors, better lawyers – and better meteorologists.


[1] Twain supporters might argue that he was really talking about weather modification. Of course that wall has been breached as well.

[2] In my case, ionospheric physics, fluid mechanics, and hydromagnetics (the latter, for some reason, more popularly known by its far more cumbersome synonym, magnetohydrodynamics).

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America’s $100 Trillion “Capture-Management” challenge.

“America is open for business.” – President Donald Trump.

News reports have it that the president’s recent trip to Davos and speech exceeded expectations. From his speech:

“I’m here to deliver a simple message: There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States… America is open for business, and we are competitive once again.”


Great sales pitch. Simple, quotable message. And it was indeed widely quoted, not just in the United States and Switzerland, but around the world.

The president is himself a businessman, and knows that even the best sales pitch works only when backed by reality on the ground and effective action behind the scenes.

Reality on the ground and effective action? All of us have a picture of what that looks like for a small shop or store. It means customers will reliably find what they’re looking for, at reasonable prices, backed by good service and reputation. Usually there’s a special individual – the owner – whose presence, vision, and service-attitude makes all this happen.

But scale up – grow an enterprise from a stand-alone coffee shop to the Starbucks network, or from hand-built ultralight aircraft to a multi-billion dollar Earth satellite system, or from house electrical wiring to a national power grid – and the dollar stakes and complexity of the task attract stiffer competition.

To win big contracts, especially from government customers, requires more than just sales or marketing in the conventional sense. To win such business at the level of multi-billion-dollar, multi-year commitments challenges firms to reach across their entire workforce and build large teams that can address every element of customer concern, including: technical competence; cost; management capability, including subcontractors and legal issues; past performance; and much more. The effort has itself become a discipline, to be studied and practiced. It’s even earned a label – capture management. The high rewards and the convoluted nature of the process attract consultants galore. Corporate survival depends upon getting capture-management right. Here’s a slide from one on-line powerpoint presentation that gives a flavor of the scale and complexity.



This work – the capture of big contracts – can easily require hundreds of millions of dollars of investment sustained over many years.

Now, scale up once more, to much higher dollar figures – what the world’s nations will be looking to purchase over the next two decades or so. With global GDP at $80T/year-$100T/year (depending upon whether measured in purchasing parity- or dollar-denominated terms), and likely to roughly double over the next twenty years, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the world’s governments will spend something like $100T over the period on critical food, water, and energy infrastructure.

Much of this work will be accomplished domestically, in country, world over. But multi-national corporations will be competing globally for their share of this huge pie.

In fact, such enormous sums draw nations into capture management as well, whether intentionally/strategically, or haphazardly. It’s the kind of incentive that causes presidents to declare their countries “are open for business.”

Realistically, only two countries are positioned to play a role at global scale, as opposed to locally – the United States and China[1],[2]. China views such work through a national security lens. It is actively building dams, developing mines, and connecting these projects with rail lines and seaports worldwide. Its “one belt, one road” initiative calls for $1T in outlays across sixty countries. U.S. activities currently lag in both scale and unifying vision.

The stakes go far beyond jobs and money. The outcomes will shape countries’ governance, world over – influencing whether they will trend democratic and free, or drift to the despotic. The implications extend to quality of life, culture, and the very deepest values. All are in play. By the end of this century, one of these two superpowers may find itself in a friendly world, one compatible with its goals and aspirations. The other risks finding itself isolated.

To dig a bit deeper:

At its heart, success in global-level business capture is founded on national S&T capability and workforce. Start with S&T. According to recent estimates, China has the lead in exascale computing; R&D outlays as a percent of GDP, and rate of growth of those outlays; manufacture of solar cells, etc. The United States has long-been the established and acknowledged leader, but now finds itself playing catch-up in these respects.

In big-business capture, a skilled workforce matters. Businesses seeking capture focus intently on workforce training and on new hires. At the international scale, this translates into national policies governing STEM education domestically, and immigration. One measure of STEM education is provided by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA ranking of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) The results of the PISA 2015 global rankings for student performance in mathematics shows the urbanized provinces of China ranked sixth worldwide, with the U.S. falling below the OECD average, in 40th place. (Of course, this is all U.S. students versus the favored few in China, however those favored few Chinese are a segment of a population three times that of the United States.) The science picture is similar: students in the same four Chinese provinces are ranked tenth; U.S. students overall were ranked 25th [3].

Turning to immigration, in the past the United States has historically attracted high levels of young immigrants showing aptitude for mathematics, science, engineering and technology, but in recent years barriers to entry and competition from abroad have seen increasing numbers of those students seeking education and their future careers elsewhere. The United States no longer enjoys its near-monopoly of the last century when it comes to attracting and retaining skills and talent of the world’s young.

In addition to these core components to successful business capture, several other factors carry weight:

Ease of doing business. At the country level, this translates into trade policies, trade agreements, and trade rules. For decades the United States has played a lead global role in developing frameworks for fair, non-exploitive trade. More recently, some of this has been displaced by an overt “America-first” rhetoric.

How well can this be expected to enhance international business capture? It is instructive to compare this easily memorable tagline (the whole world knows it by now) with those of major aerospace companies. A sample:

  • “We’re engineering a better tomorrow.”
  • “Customer success is our mission.”
  • “Innovation isn’t just an idea – it’s a way of life.”
  • “From ocean to orbit and everywhere in between, …solutions [to] connect, inform and protect the world.”
  • “A legacy of innovation.”
  • Ready for the next 60 years.”

You can bet that each of the corporations represented here is internally thinking “[our aerospace company] first.” They owe that to their shareholders. For some strange reason, though, they’ve universally decided not to lead with that message – perhaps for the same reason that each partner in a marriage doesn’t lead with that “me-first” idea upon arrival home each night. All of us have learned that our selfish ends are best met by putting the customer/partner (and the customer/partner’s concerns – security, innovation, success, a better life) first.

Internal corporate unity. Corporate leaders know that their companies, if they are to succeed in business capture, cannot be riven by internal factions, bickering, polarization, finger-pointing, constant reorganization and upheaval. To win the trust of customers, they have to build and maintain a culture of stability and trust internally that is evident (and winsome) to outsiders. China has private sector, government, and academia on the same page, in part because of a top-down, command-and-control approach to governance; in part by constant messaging to its people that the United States is an enemy to be feared. This semblance of unity is more fragile than it appears. In the United States, by contrast, longstanding freedoms that foster real loyalty and encourage individual responsibility at the same time allow vocal minorities to cast off restraint and stir up noisy disagreement. This national barking is worse than the national bite, but it can be unsettling, even off-putting to other countries. It works against U.S. prospects for international partnering – and business capture.

Corporate Social Responsibility. Corporate leaders and their shareholders constantly fret about the balance between core activities of their businesses and CSR: equal opportunity, diversity, inclusion, interests of workers relative to customers, and much more. But they all understand this: that when they come up short in such respects, they are likely to lose government business. In the same way, nations who fail to meet the needs of their own people for social justice, who lose sight of the public good, will also ultimately lose out on international business. China risks losing big here, as its leaders begin to demand that American and European companies doing business with them accommodate a greater role for Chinese influence in their decision-making. But here in the United States, we know only too well that we too have considerable room for improvement.

Evidence-based environmental considerations. This issue will be paramount in national leaders’ minds around the globe as they look for help in building the infrastructure needed to make food, water, and energy supplies reliable, plentiful, and cheap for their peoples. They have to meet today’s essential needs in ways that are sustainable. Business capture will go preferentially to the companies and nations that demonstrate the best environmental monitoring, the best numerical modeling, and impact-based decision support for these vital sectors – knowledge, analytics, and technology able to meet resource needs in the face of natural hazards and while protecting the environment and ecosystems. The U.S. used to provide leadership example and assurance here. However, failures to rebuild quickly following natural disasters in California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico; precipitous casting aside of hard-won environmental protections across the nation ranging from Alaska’s north slope to the continental U.S. shoreline; and unilateral withdrawal from global climate agreements are shaking international confidence.

Tonight’s State of the Union message will provide insights into these and other aspects of America’s capture-management strategy. A world of potential customers with $100T to spend will be watching. They’ll be wondering: “America’s open for business. Okay. Will Americans put their customers first? Make it easy to do business with them? Are they innovating? Are they on the same page over there? Are they building the capacity of their workforce for the big demands ahead? Can we count on the business solutions they propose to build in resilience to hazards and protect our environment?” 

The stakes are a lot higher than the rollout of the latest iPhone.


[1]much as when it comes to those major satellite buys, only a small handful of aerospace firms realistically hold the resources needed to compete.

[2]Viewed as a single entity, the European Union also qualifies as a player in this space.

[3]European nations generally fall somewhere in between.

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