S.W.O.T.!

Sunday’s the eve of the 2012 AMS Summer Community Meeting, which this year is being held in Norman, Oklahoma. The University of Oklahoma, major NOAA research and service units, and elements of the private sector are collocated here, principally in a magnificent edifice boldly titled the National Weather Center, the meeting site. So for a number of local attendees, the meeting will be just another day at the office. But because Norman’s close to the bulls-eye of the drought, the rest of us who had to travel here by air were treated to the sight of scorched brown fields and dried-up stream beds flying in, even as we dodged thunderstorms. Temperatures here reached 100 degrees today.

Made an impression.

The meeting’s purpose? A strategic conversation among academics, government leaders, and private-sector executives and managers about the meteorological enterprise, broadly construed. The annual sessions are the outgrowth of an NAS/NRC 2003 report, Fair Weather, which among other recommendations suggested the AMS might provide an appropriate venue for such discussions.

You can find this year’s agenda here. Looks to be an interesting and productive four days. There are panels devoted to a look back at recommendations from the 2011 Summer Community Meeting and the extent to which these have been accomplished; a retrospective on the Fair Weather report’s 2003 recommendations; state-of-the-sector sessions for the academics, business representatives, and government-agency folks respectively; a look at social media; and much more.

One tool that’s been used a lot in strategic discussions for projects and business adventures is so-called SWOT analysis (of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Wikipedia gives a summary of the technique, its history, and limitations. What might that a SWOT analysis look like for the AMS community?

There’s a lot to a formal, state-of-the art SWOT process, but here’s a ham-fisted, notional, admittedly personal discourse, offered in the hope it might trigger thought/reaction (and a better list). It’s deliberately short of specifics, rationale:

Strengths. First among these, the community’s high purpose: to make natural-resource extraction (food, water, energy, etc.) more effective; to protect the environment and ecosystems; and to provide for public safety in the face of hazards. Some others? The advance in the community’s scientific and technological capabilities in recent decades. The intellect, energy, commitment, and passion of our people.

Weaknesses. We lack a compelling business proposition, for any of the community’s three sectors individually, and for the whole. We’ve generated little more than anecdotal evidence of the value of our contributions to society. Partially as a result, our infrastructure looks to be fragile long-term. Satellite cost overruns don’t lead us as a nation to redouble our efforts. Instead they are leading to terminations and descoping. Networks of surface sensors such as weather radars are aging. The world is globalizing, and meteorology is inherently global, yet our community’s focus remains largely domestic. We’re splintered on important issues such as climate change, and even where we happen to be on the same page, we lack communication skills to match our growing expertise in meteorology. Our messages can be confusing, and sometimes off-putting, to each other, let alone policymakers and the wider public.

Opportunities. Here the greatest opportunity is our moment in history. Never before have the three challenges of resource extraction, environmental protection, and hazard mitigation meant so much. Never before have we enjoyed such tools for addressing these challenges. The generations who follow will find that the actions and decisions we will have taken this century have defined their possibilities and set their limitations. Ours is the generation that will matter.

Close behind is the idea of a weather-ready nation as an organizing principle. If we can take that notion from an NWS strategy from improved services to a national reality speaking to community-by-community resilience to hazards, we’ll not only be less vulnerable to extremes but we’ll have taken big steps to slow environmental degradation and maintain resource extraction as well. The key? Action at the local level.

And in third place, maybe tied for second, is the opportunity posed by disruptive technologies and ways of doing business for our field. The world’s approach to gathering data, and mining those data for knowledge and information is changing so rapidly that we can be virtually certain that none of the services we now provide or the institutions who provide them will be recognizable in a very short span of years. If we can embrace this revolution and shape it, as opposed to flinch from it or remain oblivious, we can be agents of change versus dinosaurs that history passes by.

Threats. There are internal ones, but let’s start with a list of some that are external. The collapse of the Euro. The forced sequestration of federal funds and other dysfunction in response to a breakdown of compromise and accommodation at the highest levels of U.S. government. The unsustainability of the academic enterprise, with skyrocketing tuition and fees and with the emergence of a two-tier structure separating senior, tenured faculty from early-career professionals. The constraints on public-private collaboration that limit it to principle-agent relationships and arms-length regulation, instead of fostering strategic partnerships.

The biggest internal threat? That we might lose sight of this premise: our community exists not to feather our respective sector-by-sector nests but rather to serve the larger American public and the world.

________________________

Again, this list was hastily thrown together. It could and should be improved…not just by edits, but by adding major pieces, removing others, and restructuring. Let’s have at it.

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4 Responses to S.W.O.T.!

  1. Mike Smith says:

    Bill,

    Agree with you 100% about our weakness. I have tried to do my part with “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather” but — to my surprise and disappointment — the meteorological community has not gotten behind it.

    By “get behind it” I do not mean that everyone has to purchase the book. I do mean that we need to get the word out in a similar manner — compelling and easy for people to understand and appreciate.

    The critical reviews of “Warnings” have been stellar — far beyond my expectations. The majority of the meteorological community that I have interacted with simply do not seem to see the need for promoting what we do.

    As I have said (too many times), “If we don’t promote the value of what we do, who will?”

    See you in Norman.

    Mike

  2. Bill Read says:

    Bill,

    I would add as a strength our academia. The highly talented young people I was privileged to work with and even more privileged to hire over the past 20 years are a testimony to the success of the system.

    Under weakness – I think the current inability to embrace change rapidly is endemic across the enterprise. We are a very risk averse community, in my opinion. In order to take on revolutionary changes, one needs to accept risk. Unless we make breakthroughs in changing that paradigm, the opportunity you pose will be lost.

    Biggest threat – fiscal. The gap between what funding is needed for infrastructure and what society is willing to pay is widening, not closing. I don’t see a cheap way out of world class infrastructure.

    regards,

    Bill

    • William H. Hooke says:

      Thanks, Bill: right on target. Great additions. I draw strength and encouragement every day from the young people I get to work with. And embracing change is our biggest challenge.

      And because, like you I don’t see any shortcuts to world class infrastructure, I think the key is improving our understanding of just how valuable that infrastructure is to us. It’s cheap by comparison to the benefit. But we have to do a better job of making that business case. We have to be as disciplined in that part of the argument as we are with respect to our science itself.

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