The past two posts, prompted by the FY2012 federal government budget rollout, and John Knauss’ challenge of twenty years ago, have asked whether NOAA is as relevant today as it had been back around 1990. The answer would appear to be “yes.”
Now it’s time to turn to the future. What will it take to maintain NOAA’s current relevancy?
Let’s start with the obvious. NOAA’s issues will be as relevant in 2026 as they are today – in fact, even more so. By 2026, the threefold-role of the real world as resource, victim, and threat will be more obvious to more people; will be more clearly understood; and more widely appreciated. Many more of us – from every country in the world – will know where and in what ways we depend on the Earth for water, food and fiber, energy, and a range of renewable and non-renewable resources. We’ll have a better idea of how to sustain Earth’s provision of those basic needs – what our options are, how and where we’re susceptible to disruption of Earth’s supply of these vital goods and services. We’ll know another level of detail about how this resource extraction and our human footprint are affecting the Earth: the environment generally, but also right down to specifics about air, water, and soil quality, habitat, biodiversity, and landscape. And we’ll be more aware of our vulnerability to natural hazards of every description – cycles of flood and drought; major storms; earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and more. Public concerns from global to local levels will be widespread, more intense, and more clearly articulated. People will demand that their leaders and institutions master these matters.
Any uncertainty, then, is confined to the future relevance of NOAA itself. Given the sweeping changes underway, will NOAA be regarded as an agent of change, a bystander in the midst of that change, or an extinct dinosaur that history and change have passed by? Will other entities have picked up the baton? Will NOAA be more like Digital Equipment Corporation or IBM? Westinghouse or General Electric? MySpace or Facebook? The Civil Aeronautics Board or the Federal Aviation Administration?
NOAA’s effectiveness – in core/legacy areas; the social sciences and the policy arena; and institutional socialization more generally – hold the key:
Let’s begin with the core.
Research. Think about the scientific progress of the last several years. We have radically changed our ideas of how glacier- and pack-ice melt – and why they’ve been melting so much more rapidly than expected. We have only just begun to appreciate the nature, causes, extent, and impacts of ocean acidification. We have greatly expanded our understanding of carbon sequestration. We’re beginning to build a knowledge base for geo-engineering. Renewable energy technologies are surfacing a number of new questions about the Earth, its oceans, and atmosphere work. These topics – and many others – were on the fringe just a few years ago. Yet they’re not merely details when it comes to environmental issues and what we can and should do about them. These are major topics! They’re emerging out of nowhere! It’s unlikely that the next fifteen years will see any letup in the broadening and acceleration of research.
Keeping pace with this explosive growth – to say nothing of contributing to it out at the cutting edge – will be especially challenging for NOAA. That work on oil spills, the ozone hole, climate monitoring and modeling that has made NOAA relevant to date? In each case NOAA was able to draw on decades of science. Yet today, even as the pace of research is accelerating, NOAA has carved its nascent Climate Service out of the staff and project funds that historically had been its seed corn. It enters the decade 2010-2020 with funding for long-term research at about half of historic levels. A ramp-up – a doubling or quadrupling of research funds and personnel – is vitally needed to pre-position knowledge and understanding when and where it will be needed for tomorrow’s problems. This will be difficult to achieve in the current fiscal and political climate.
Observations. Two trends will make it hard for NOAA to maintain relevancy here. First, the number of research capabilities for measurement, and the measurement requirements for future years that have been identified by that research, have been growing exponentially. By contrast, NOAA budgets for observing infrastructure have remained constant or in slight decline. NOAA struggles to take research progress and harness it to improved products and services. Second, the procurement cycle for developing and acquiring equipment – especially satellite systems – has been lengthening even as the pace of innovation in this arena has picked up. For this reason, some firms are suggesting that NOAA and other federal agencies let long-term contracts for data rather than buy hardware. Many private-sector firms are developing their own in-house data acquisition, especially with respect to surface monitoring. In this latter arena, NOAA observations are already only a small fraction of the national total.
Modeling. NOAA’s antecedents – the Weather Bureau, and the Environmental Science Service Administration – enjoyed access to cutting edge computing capabilities. They’d often see serial #1 versions of new computers as they came on line. NOAA led in work on data assimilation, and on ocean-atmosphere coupled models. Today, European and Asian groups are well resourced and staffed to work on state of the art modeling. Coupling has extended to land-surface processes, human activity, and more. NOAA struggles to maintain computing capacity, and to attract and retain the modeling talent needed to keep pace.
It is in the national interest for NOAA to succeed with respect to all three of these tasks. NOAA is unique among federal agencies in having a mission whose goal is accurate predictions, free of a particular policy self-interest. NOAA research, observations, and modeling form the basis for public safety in the face of hazards; private-sector services fostering profitability in weather-sensitive sectors of the economy, and enhancing U.S. competitiveness abroad; and early warning of potential geopolitical instability arising from water shortages, crop failures, and other environmental challenges abroad.
The jury is very much out on whether the United States will meet this challenge.
Do you find all this sobering? You should! That’s a sign of mental health. But consider this. In the early 1990’s the hill NOAA had to climb looked just as daunting. And today, looking back, meeting that challenge provides reason for satisfaction. Do you work for NOAA in 2011? Show up for work each day, do your job, and in 2026 you’ll have some accomplishments of your own to celebrate.
Tomorrow, we turn to NOAA’s challenge with respect to mastering the social sciences, especially economics, sociology, and communication; and policy.
 It should be clear from this and the two previous posts, that apart from a few details, a similar logic applies to the relevancy of a number of federal agencies whose missions include the Earth as resource, victim, and threat: Department of Interior, and its agencies; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Energy; EPA; NASA; the geosciences directorate of NSF; and many other federal agencies, as well as state- and local agencies; and their academic and private-sector collaborators. Try it as a thought exercise.