Earth observations, science, and services: How good is good enough?

Writing for the AMS blog The Front Page, Ellen Klicka posted a nice article building on last week’s AMS Washington Forum entitled The value of knowing our value. Her comments take off from the first panel at the Forum, which dealt with the value of the “weather enterprise” … a component, but only one component, of the larger community of practice engaged in developing and maintaining America’s critical infrastructure for Earth observations, science, and services.

Her piece merits reading in its entirety. Here’s an excerpt:

…As a community, weather, water and climate organizations and professionals do not justify in quantitative terms their value to society as effectively as other enterprises. Where can this community say it fits in?

The difficulties created by increasingly tight federal budgets are inescapable. Some say if the enterprise does not step forward to demonstrate why its labor is vital to the nation, decision makers with less knowledge will have no choice but to set priorities on their own. Others believe that framing of the issue is divisive, pitting segments of the community against each other for finite resources…

Ms. Klicka closes with this (multiple choice) question:

How good do we want to be as a nation?

A. No worse than we are today
B. As good as we can be (with no realistic limitations on resources)
C. As good as we can afford to be at a fixed cost-benefit ratio
D. As good as or better than other nations at a similar economic development stage

As a stand-alone, the question is something of a Rorschach test. Declining that opportunity, I’ll choose to interpret it narrowly, as asking

How good do we (that is, our Nation) want our Earth observations, science, and services to be?

… and provide a few comments about each of the possible answers. The thought process is not that different from what many of us did with the College Board exams… the SAT’s… when we didn’t know the answer. We would go through a process of elimination. Let’s start by eliminating C:

C. As good as we can afford to be at a fixed cost-benefit ratio. Since as a nation we have no cost-benefit analysis, we can’t choose this option. Moreover, there’s no good way to choose one cost-benefit ratio over another here. Wasn’t there something in economics along the lines of we’d continue to plump for improved services up to the level where the marginal cost matched the marginal benefit of the next improvement?

D. As good as or better than other nations at a similar economic development stage. Based on history, you could reach two opinions. One is, since we’re currently limiting NCEP/NWS to use of a computer with one eighth the power that used by the Europeans, yet demanding our computer deliver ten times as many products per 24-hour cycle, we’re clearly not willing to pay what it takes to keep up with the Joneses. Then we’re told that the Congressional Hurricane Sandy supplemental includes funding to redress this shortfall. But we’re reminded that furloughs, travel restrictions, cuts in training, and other budget trimming for NWS staff continue to be a possibility as a result of the sequester. So D doesn’t seem to be the prevailing national posture.

A. No worse than we are today. For the same reasons, A doesn’t seem to be the answer either. Case in point: weather satellites are on the GAO high-risk list. If we’re content to stand by and lose satellite coverage vital to numerical weather prediction and tracking the location and development of short-lived, dangerous phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes, the United States can’t claim to subscribe to Policy A. [ Times have changed. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the last NWS Modernization and Associated Restructuring was underway, Congress passed legislation requiring the Secretary of Commerce personally sign a statement with respect to every NWS office closing or relocation that the change would lead to no degradation of service.]

E. None of the above. Ms. Klicka didn’t offer this option, but in fact, this has been the historical answer given by the President and Congress. In the 1990’s, for example, lacking any cost-benefit analytical framework for Earth observations, science, and services , Congress would go through the following process with respect to the NOAA appropriation…

In those days, the Commerce budget was lumped together with appropriations for Departments of Justice and State. Under Gramm-Rudman rules, these three budgets constituted a zero-sum game under a single total. Vulnerability to terrorist attack was always a problem at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, so these triggered a series of increased DoS budget requests over the years. Treasury in turn would point to the escalating costs of the War on Drugs and the efforts to prevent illegal immigration across our borders.

Against those competing rationales, Commerce would struggle to stay level-funded.

That said, the nation should prefer some (suitably interpreted) version of

B. As good as we can be. This is our posture with regard to national security, for example. We regard our democracy and our liberties as essential. We see an additional responsibility to other peoples and nations to remain strong not just for our sake, but for theirs (witness our umbrella of protection spanning South Korea, Japan, and other nations across the western Pacific, our NATO alliance with Europe, etc.). One result is that with 4% of the world’s population, we account for 40% of the world’s defense spending. And for the most part, any complaint from our citizenry with regard to these expenditures is only discussion around the margins and about the particulars…specific weapons purchases… whether individual programs are well-managed… whether we’re appropriately balanced with respect to different types of threats, etc .

That ought to be our same attitude with respect to spending on Earth observations, science, and services. Without these investments, we’re essentially flying blind with respect to the defining challenges of the 21st-century: providing food, water, and energy for our population; protecting the environment; and building resilience to natural hazards. And, just as we go the extra step to protect the freedoms of people worldwide, not just our own, so should we want to provide an extra measure of help to the world’s billions struggling to live well on the real world.

The cost of such measures would be a good deal less than our defense spending. It would likely amount to little more than a doubling of our current rate of expenditure… an additional $15B/year say. That $15B would largely go for increased domestic spending and job creation here at home. The far larger economic contributions would be abroad… to agriculture-, energy-, transportation- and other sectors of other nations. That would increase international trade and raise our GDP in additional ways.  A final benefit? By helping the world in this way we would increase geopolitical stability and reduce the risk of armed conflict everywhere around the globe. That would show up in terms of savings or increased effectiveness of our defense budget.

I hope others will weigh in on Ms. Klicka’s excellent post.

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