For NOAA, persistence may not be the best forecast just now

A week or so back my pastor and I were standing outside the church with his young daughter. I asked her… “Did you realize that you already know how to make a weather forecast for tomorrow that’s roughly 67% accurate?”

She was intrigued. “All you have to do,” I continued, “is predict that tomorrow’s weather will be like today’s. And you’ll be right 60-70% of the time.”

She grinned. Suddenly she felt empowered. You could see the wheels turning. Maybe she could try that out on her teacher…or a school friend.

Since then, my pastor and I have been toying with how we might unpack that idea a bit, and compare that with the way our spiritual lives go along…extended periods with little change…but then something happens.

That is for another day and another place. For here and for now, let’s look afresh at NOAA.

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“Persistence is the best forecast.”

Are you in the meteorological world? Then you’re familiar with that idea. Problem is…whether you’re a farmer or water resource manager or air traffic controller or emergency manager, or just a member of the public going about your daily business… those exceptions to persistence are what matters. When and in what ways is the weather going to change, and what will it mean to me? The challenge for meteorologists is to beat persistence. In the same way, climate forecasters test skill by their ability to beat climatology.

What’s true for the weather is often true in the rest of our lives. We have a routine. We operate within a framework. Sometimes we call that routine a “rut.” We long to leave it. But for many purposes, that rut offers advantages, at least in the short term. [Suppose each night, every night, overnight, while you and I were sleeping, the locations of all Metro stations, bus stops, and routes were relocated…]

Let’s cut to the chase. Yesterday the President made a short speech from the White House. As the Washington Post reports, he seeks power to streamline the government. In his remarks, he noted that the power of the President to reorganize the executive branch has declined over the past century, as Congress has progressively restricted opportunities for unilateral action. But, he said (my phrasing, not his), rapid social change demands that government adapt. He signaled his desire to merge multiple federal agencies into a new department charged with overseeing all aspects of trade and investment, business and economic development, technology and innovation, and data statistics on these matters. The economy – especially small business – was his focus. But citing NOAA and Interior’s joint jurisdiction (along with other federal agencies) over salmon, he hinted at moving NOAA into the Department of Interior.

The president asserted these measures were manifestly beneficial, and non-partisan, meriting support from all sides. Politics should not be an issue. But politics has already begun to intrude (surprise!), as you can discover from logging onto whatever sites you prefer for your news. And (another shocker!), well-intentioned people actually do differ over whether these proposals are on balance good or bad.

We’ll be hearing much more about this for quite a while (after all, isn’t persistence the best forecast!).

But what do the proposed changes mean, or should they mean, for you and me? Here are some preliminary thoughts…

Most readers of this blog are in the business of Earth observations, science, and services or the use of those Earth observations and services for human benefit – to guide resource development; to protect the environment and prevent the degradation of ecosystem services; and to guard against natural hazards. And chances are good that you and I are laboring over particular small bits and pieces of this versus the big picture.

For us, yesterday’s announcement shouldn’t change that job, does it? The Earth itself didn’t reorganize. It’s still working the same way, proving to be resolutely variable locally, and globally, and on all time horizons. The proposed government reorganization doesn’t add to or subtract from our imperfect understanding of that Earth. The little bit we know, we still know. The part that remains undiscovered is still opaque. The mechanics of translating knowledge into social benefit remain absorbing. Our little piece? It still needs doing. The urgency and importance of our work continues to grow.

What about the big-picture people, the leaders, the people who bear special burden for the way the bits and pieces come together? They operate at the interfaces that separate the natural- and social scientific disciplines, the sciences from the services, the services from the end use, and so on. Their (your? our?) job is communicating, and connecting, and collaborating in this space, linking government agencies with one another, partnering government at all levels with the private sector and academia, working across international boundaries.

Surely this changes everything for them?

Not really. Those tasks were ongoing yesterday and the day before that. The people involved are the same. The only element missing is that “rut” factor. Today, every one of those established relationships is potentially fresh and new. But come to think of it, that should have been true all along. There’s a parallel in any marriage or life partnership. The great marriages are those that are reinvigorated and transformed every day, in little and big ways. If we had been taking things for granted before, we shouldn’t have been.  What’s more, when it comes to the Earth sciences and science-based services, all of us are in the business of change. And those in the business of change cannot be immune to its consequences.

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It’s the weekend. A good time for self-examination, for reappraisal.

So, in closing for today, here’s a litmus test you can give you and I can give ourselves. Ask…am I putting the interests of others ahead of my own? Then the prospect of any change here doesn’t threaten me. Quite the opposite, it’s energizing, no matter how things eventually turn out. By contrast…do I feel tense, anxious, threatened, nervous, stressed by this organizational change or the prospect of it? Then chances are good I’m thinking largely of my self-preservation. Worse…I’m not dwelling on my truest self-interest (peace of mind, contentment, challenge, purpose, joy…). Instead, I’m obsessed with terrible, narrow, self-destructive mis-directed little subset that defines my self-interest only in terms of my title or position, or the number of my direct reports, or the grade level of my next job, or some impoverished idea about the source of my security.

If each of us individually works through this, we’ll be glad we did.

In the next post…a look back…what history has to say about NOAA’s prospects – and ours.

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