Theory X, Theory Y, and the genesis of red tape in science.

“Suppose you’re running a widget factory. You can measure, very quickly, whether a man [sic] is working effectively or not by the number of widgets he’s making hour-by-hour, or day-by-day, and what you see him doing at the widget machine. But if you’re supervising a scientist, it’s much harder to tell. He might have his feet up on the desk or be looking out the window, but still be incredibly productive at that moment. Or he might appear busy at the blackboard or with pen and paper, but really be thinking about something else. You won’t be able to tell for sure for weeks. You’d better hope he’s self-motivated.” – my father, Robert Hooke (at the dinner table, sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s)[1].

Robert Hooke 1918-2003

Robert Hooke 1918-2003

Congress seems to be taking a Theory X approach to management of science and scientists. Scientists are pushing back. That’s not good for either side, or for the country. Some quiet conversation and resolution might be helpful.

Here’s some background/context, starting with my dad and the “quote” above.

My father was a research mathematician. After getting his Ph.D. from Princeton, he worked by turns as an academic, a civilian federal employee at the Pentagon, and ultimately in the private sector – where he ran the mathematics department of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories for two decades. The discourse quoted above had a practical, homegrown feel. He seemed to be sharing ideas he’d formulated on his own, from experience. But years later, in 1973, as a wet-behind-the-ears federal first-level supervisor, I would be re-introduced to these ideas more formally at a five-day short course. The speaker acquainted us with the groundbreaking work of Douglas McGregor, a professor at the MIT Sloan School. McGregor articulated these ideas in terms of two approaches to management which he termed Theory X and Theory Y. It’s hard to improve on the Wikipedia summary of these two approaches, which is repeated here:

Douglas McGregor 1906-1964

Douglas McGregor 1906-1964

Theory X considers that on the whole, workers dislike their work, and have little inherent motivation to perform well. Therefore, if organizational goals are to be met, ‘Theory X’ managers must rely heavily on detailed rules and instructions, on close monitoring, and on the threat of punishment to gain employee compliance. When practiced, this theory can lead to mistrust, highly restrictive supervision and a punitive atmosphere. The ‘Theory X’ manager believes that all actions should be traced and the responsible individual given a direct reward or a reprimand according to the action’s outcomes. This managerial style is more effective when used to motivate a workforce that is not inherently motivated to perform. It is usually exercised in professions where promotion is infrequent, unlikely or even impossible and where workers perform repetitive tasks. A flaw of this management style is that it limits the employee’s potential and discourages creative thinking.

Theory Y, in contrast, is based on the belief that, given appropriate working conditions, most people perform well. The worker is considered as the most important asset of the company. It is believed that workers can derive satisfaction from their physical and mental work, viewing it as a game or as something to be enjoyed. Workers can take responsibility and can solve problems in a creative way, so that they do not need to be shadowed constantly; workers will commit to objectives in proportion to the satisfaction they get from achieving them. Thus, Theory Y managers consider that to achieve the objectives of the company, they must treat each worker as a mature and responsible individual, and adopt a style of participatory, democratic leadership, based on self-direction and self-control and requiring little external control.

Management theory has of course moved on from these earlier ideas. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to look at the history of policy for science here in the United States and its latest twists and turns through the Theory X/Theory Y prism. The narrative begins with the Constitution. The preamble sets forth government’s purposes:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, drills down further with respect to science:

“Congress shall have the power to… promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…”

Thus the Constitution affirms the importance of science and at the same time assigns to Congress responsibility for fostering it. It’s clear that at the time, patent protection, by itself, was thought to be a sufficient policy measure[2].

At the end of World War II, the nation decided that the patent system wasn’t the only policy incentive needed to foster innovation. Congress increased funding for research and created new funding agencies. The most notable of these was the National Science Foundation. U.S. Public Law 89-507 (1950), establishing NSF, reads:

“to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”

So far, so good. If anything, feels like Theory Y.

Now fast-forward to 2016. The U.S. House of Representatives has recently proposed (H.R. 3293, Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, 114th Congress, Second Session), in the name of “greater accountability in federal funding for research,” the following language:


The National Science Foundation shall award Federal funding for basic research and education in the sciences through a new research grant or cooperative agreement only if an affirmative determination is made by the Foundation under sub-section (b) and written justification relating thereto is published under subsection (c).

(b) DETERMINATION. A determination referred to in subsection (a) is a justification by the responsible Foundation official as to how the research grant or cooperative agreement promotes the progress of science in the United States, consistent with the Foundation mission as established in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (42 U.S.C. 1861 et seq.), and further—

       (1) is worthy of Federal funding;

       (2) is consistent with established and widely accepted scientific methods applicable to the field of study of exploration;

       (3) is consistent with the definition of basic research as it applies to the purpose and field of study; and

       (4) is in the national interest, as indicated by having the potential to achieve—

             (A) increased economic competitiveness in the United States;

             (B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;

             (C) development of an American STEM workforce, including computer science and information technology sectors, that is globally competitive;

             (D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;

             (E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;

             (F) support for the national defense of the United States; or

             (G) promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

(c) WRITTEN JUSTIFICATION. Public announcement of each award of Federal funding described in subsection (a) shall include a written justification from the responsible Foundation official as to how a grant or cooperative agreement meets the requirements of subsection (b).”

Congress seems to be saying: if national goals are to be met, NSF needs more detailed rules and instructions. Closer monitoring; tracing of all actions. An implied hint of punishment for failure to comply. The legislation has a Theory X feel.

Not surprisingly, given the rancorous nature of the times, there has been pushback. For example, you can find a response from President Obama’s OSTP Director John Holdren here. Much of the pushback has been along party lines.

But in reality, all parties – members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, NSF leaders, and academic researchers – should have a shared interest in walking-back this measure.

Not pushing it back; walking it back. Together.

Here’s why. To start, NSF program managers and academics certainly aren’t willfully and deliberately trying to fund research that won’t promote scientific progress and national benefit. But it’s also true that Congress isn’t proposing these rules simply to make mischief. At least some members have genuine concerns. What’s more, scientists should always see there’s room to improve the allocation of scarce research dollars to the most beneficial purposes. They should want Congress that’s interested and engaged and paying attention to that allocation. But here’s the paramount danger – the reason we have to step away from the confrontation: as noted earlier, the Theory X approach “limits the employee’s (in this case, the scientific community’s) potential and discourages creative thinking.” Innovation is vitally important to the United States and its continuing place in world affairs. The evidence is innovation is fragile – easier to kill than to foster[3]. The longer Congress feels the need to impose more detailed oversight, and the longer scientists continue to do no more than resist, the more likely U.S. science will start on a downward spiral in effectiveness that none of us can risk.

The path forward would seem simple – involving less effort, not more. Scientists, both at NSF and in the university community, instead of getting defensive about the proposed legislation, should develop ways and means to open a more productive dialog with Congress, listening to Congressional concerns and working collaboratively to develop alternatives to this section of H.R. 3293. Congress, for its part, might consider broadening the ways it receives input from scientists and their institutions on these matters. Both sides should favor a conversation addressing shared values and goals – and digging into how and the why innovation is essential to accomplishing the national agenda – rather than getting mired in scientific details. To reemphasize; this conversation will require less effort than fighting. The hard part will be getting the right players to the table; from there, it should be downhill.


A closing vignette. Some years later my father announced in another dinnertime conversation that Westinghouse Research Laboratories had put its scientists on the clock. “You know,” he said, “up until that time, all the scientists put in far more than their nominal forty hours a week. But after the corporate headquarters made them punch in and punch out, their hours – and their productivity – dropped precipitously.” This innovation drop would contribute to the decline that eventually put Westinghouse Electric Corporation out of business.

[1] This isn’t an exact quote, but is pretty close. It certainly captures the spirit of what he was saying one night at the dinner table. An aside: in the language of the time, “man” in such a generic statement could mean “man or woman.” Today we’d say it differently. Women were relatively rare in science back then, but my dad knew several. One who was frequently the subject of his admiration and discussion at our dinner table was Gertrude Mary Cox, a statistician who founded the experimental statistics department at N.C. State in 1940. My father got his first job there in 1941. He was an algebraist at the time; she and others were influential in encouraging him to switch his attention to statistics. Changed his life forever, and by extension my brother’s life (he would get a Cornell Ph.D. in operations research and then go on to a distinguished career at Bell Labs) and mine. In the 1950’s, Gertrude Cox would be instrumental in helping to establish the Research Triangle Institute – the seed that has grown today into North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

[2]Years later, Abraham Lincoln (apparently the only president in our history to apply for and be granted a patent) would have this to say: “The patent system… added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” We’re told he thought the discovery of America was the most important development in world history, followed by the invention of printing and third by patent laws.

[3] The World War II experience provides an extreme but compelling illustration of the importance of motivation in the progress of science. Both the United States and Germany raced to build the atomic bomb. Evidence was that German scientists were every bit as intelligent as their Allied counterparts. However, knowing the use to which the bomb would be put by their leaders, they just didn’t have their hearts in the work.


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(living on the) Real-World reset.


Seven weeks have passed since the previous LOTRW post. For the world’s billions, life has gone on. LOTRW’s silence has prompted no notice, no public outcry. The sun has continued to rise in the east. Here in the United States, attention has instead been riveted on the presidential primaries, where the governing reality has been substantially different from the physical, social, and yes, spiritual realities imposed by the Earth, its atmosphere, and oceans. Nevertheless, it feels right to pick things back up. The pause has provided opportunity for reflection and renewal. World events continue to offer daily fodder for comment.


An aside: LOTRW has been alive and active since August of 2010 – some 740 posts over that period of some 2000 days. That works out to a post every three days, on average, even including the seven-week hiatus.


The governing truth seems to be something like this: When it comes down to Earth system realities versus human inclinations, the Earth system realities ultimately win any war. But in every battle until the last, those realities will be trumped (so to speak) by short-run political imperatives[1].

Intermittently though, and always sooner or later, politicians and publics return to the challenges posed by the limits to natural resources, the threats posed by natural hazards, and the vital but fragile nature of ecosystem services.

That prospect should strengthen your resolve and mine. The world’s peoples are counting on the small minority of us who make these matters our primary concern, who look to the temporal and global horizon for early signs of opportunity and developing societal risk, to do our jobs. The funding may not always be adequate (the world is in financially straitened circumstances if you haven’t noticed). We won’t always be listened to. And when we do get the world’s attention, it won’t usually shower us with thanks or approval. We are not immune to the dysfunction and frustrations of the society in which we’re embedded. (Truth be told, being humans ourselves we sometimes contribute to the larger malfunction.) But we still have to do our jobs. And our jobs matter.

Amid the fear and hope and aspiration and vexations of our lives we occasionally encounter moments of grace allowing us to experience some measure of satisfaction with our efforts. Not incidentally, for me, the experience is a daily sense of wonder that I get to work with all of you… and by extension to be part of a much larger community of equally special, dedicated people I have yet to know personally. Let’s keep it up.

Since we’re pressing the reset button, perhaps it’s appropriate to re-publish the very first LOTRW post, dated August 3, 2010. Given that you and I have trouble remembering bullet points from the conference talk we heard last week, or the plot of the book we finished in January, or the pastors’ sermon from two days ago, chances are good this will seem new. If you have time and inclination, ask yourself whether the overall focus of the blog remains (or ever was) salient, whether the blog has remained true to the early vision, whether the contributions have been positive or negative. You might go further and consider how it might be improved. For extra credit, you could share a comment one way or another along those lines. Please weigh in. If you do, I’ll be grateful. Maybe others would be as well.

With that, here’s the republished first post:


 “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.”

Charles Darwin, The Origins of Man, Chapter 6

Darwin’s reflection introduces this blog for several reasons. First, the world has just celebrated the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. He’s been on our minds. And in the process, we’ve been reminded that he was not just (stereotype alert!) a great scientist, but a complex, human figure, in many respects very much like you and me.

Second, and far more substantively, “the progress of science” is highly germane to our lives today, when science has shouldered a high-profile role in real-world affairs. We should care about the progress of science!

That hasn’t always been the case. Look to the past. For most of human experience – dating back a few hundred thousand years, give or take – science has been a mere sideline. The thought processes of scientists weren’t all that well publicized, and indeed weren’t all that rigorous.

Take the great physicians Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca.370 BC) and Galen (ca 130 AD – ca 200 AD). Hippocrates saw disease as a product of environment, diet, and lifestyle (no germ theory there, but at least a germ of truth), while Galen supposed that the function of the heart was to heat the body (consistent with the cooling of bodies to room temperature after death but otherwise grossly misleading). The two of them, and others of ancient times, were developing the rudiments of “the scientific method” even as they tried to draw conclusions about the nature of the real world. Back then, and even up until the last century or so, science was largely privately supported. Science was the hobby of those rich enough to indulge, or those willing to live in poverty in order to “support their habit.” Darwin himself was apparently largely funded by his father, enjoying only intermittent support from other sources. His studies at Cambridge were aimed at preparing him to be an Anglican parson.

Private support had disadvantages, but one advantage it offered was that scientists of independent means were answerable largely to themselves alone, and were accordingly free to pursue their own interests, on their own schedule.

Increasingly, though, science (and its next-of-kin, technology) started to matter. Governments began funding research and development, first in an ad hoc manner, and then under a more formal policy framework. World War II is often cited as a milestone, although the United States and other nations certainly had prior policies toward science. But today, by any measure, science is big[1]. And because science is today pivotal in human affairs, it joins all those other salient things, and ideas, and ways of business; it becomes a subject for public debate and argument (as Darwin suggests). Today, science is contentious. Not just views but facts are in dispute. And scientists owe it to the public, who is footing the bill, to engage, and to favor certain topics over others, and to recognize that some research is rather urgent. We can’t remain aloof – or loaf along.

The third reason this quote leads off? Rather more personal. I first ran across this line back around 1970 when it introduced Palmen and Newton’s new book, Atmospheric Circulation Systems. Maybe Darwin’s observation didn’t change my life, but it has certainly sharpened my thought. Up to that time (and I already had earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago by then), I’d been inculcated with the idea that the greatest shame a scientist can bring on himself or herself is to be wrong, or mistaken, or errant, especially in print. Here was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived not exactly contradicting that idea, but at least making it more nuanced, loosening it up a bit.

Perhaps five years later, this notion was reinforced. I happened to be in the seminar room of NOAA’s Boulder research labs when Doug Lilly, one of the better scientists in our field, and today a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said, with a trademark grin, in the middle of a talk on his latest work, “…I’m not going to justify this next step, but I’m going to tell you what I did.”

!!! There I sat, still thinking everything a scientist ever could say in public or write in print had to be right, had to be unassailable – totally supported by both evidence and reason. But here was an intellect I greatly respected relaxing that constraint, saying that you could comingle fact and conjecture; you just had to label each for what it was. Doug was alerting us. On the one hand, he was saying: look, if you take this step at this point in the rationale, see what it allows you do. And at the same time he was saying listen up! What follows no longer has the same status or foundation as that which has come before. Here’s an opportunity for you to do your own thinking, your own research. Here’s a new problem to fret through! It was splendid, particularly when I realized everyone in the room thought the more of him for that – not less.

Of course by that time I was no longer doing science so much as managing or leading it. (Problem solved? In the cynical view of many bench scientists, and indeed many people of every profession and walk of life, bosses seem less troubled by distinctions between facts and views, matters of honesty and integrity, and so on. The reality as I experienced it for more than three decades is rather different. One of the greatest challenges managers and leaders face is that of distinguishing in their speech between facts and views, being clear on each, speaking truth to power…)

This quote has never left me over the years. I’ve repeated it hundreds of times to colleagues and friends as an introduction to whatever I would say next. It is both confession and encouragement.

What, then, is its connection to the blog?

Quite simply this…now that we’ve all had a decade of experience with blogs, we’ve seen that they can take a range of forms, but that at their best they provide a platform for putting forth views, as well as facts. They are also collaborative. Blogs and their embodied ideas create the opportunity for others to “take salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” They’re better suited to incubating (often speculative) ideas than to archiving established truths.

So if you’ll read this blog from time to time, you will mostly find “views, supported by some evidence.” I’ll be trying my best to steer clear of false views, but I’ll admit at the outset that the views presented here, being views, are flawed, and can not just stand a little improvement, but cry out for it, and call for refinement, and on occasion outright rejection…these are the advances and contributions that only you can make, not just in any responses you may throw in here, though those are needed, but also in your broader work and discourse. On this blog, on these topics, it is more important to be stimulating than right.

Topics? Just what is the purview of this blog? To get a better feel, you might click on “About” The first few posts will also focus on purview and purpose. But in a few words, we human beings – all seven billion of us – have a destiny that is intertwined with that of the Earth itself, a planet (and its associated ocean, and atmosphere, and life). The real world is at one and the same time:

–         a resource,

–         a victim, and

–         a threat.

Given these realities, perhaps it would be to our advantage to think rather more, and rather more realistically, about this complicated and important relationship – and to be more deliberate in the way we translate thought into decision and action – as individuals, institutions, and nations.

This blog, and those of us who contribute to and read it, will explore these realities and their implications, and options for coping (which are providentially themselves very real, and accessible). Perhaps in this way we can help make a better (real) world, for ourselves and for those who follow.


[1] Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse gives the flavor.

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The 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, 3-fold problems, and Martin Luther King

If a man is thirty-seven years old, as I am, and compromises what he believes in or knows to be true just because he wants to live a little longer or a little more comfortably, then he may live until he’s eighty-seven, but his physical death is merely a belated announcement of a much earlier death of the spirit. – Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca 1966)[1].


Martin Luther King would have been 87 years old this weekend. We’ve arrived.

1966 was also the year that he set up a family residence in Chicago and continued his (ultimately successful) protests against de facto segregation and poor conditions in Chicago public schools. As part of Dr. King’s campaign he made a speech to a crowd assembled at what is now the Midway Plaisance Park area of the south side of Chicago, adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. I was a graduate student at the university then, and the chance was too good to miss. Out of curiosity as much as anything else, I strolled the several blocks to be part of the throng, and worked my way up to perhaps within 100 feet of the great man.

Wouldn’t you know it! In the middle of his compelling speech that afternoon he said this: “A lot of you are here just out of curiosity. But will you be with us tomorrow when we march on City Hall?”

Called out! I felt strongly (as did probably half the people in that crowd) that he was looking at me directly when he said that. Of course I (and thousands of others) did go that next day. The march resulted in the ouster of then Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis.

What’s that to do with the 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, just concluded? And with three-fold problems? Here’s the thread. (Please bear with me…)

One salient feature of this year’s meeting was a strong, sustained showing, and a single, compelling message, from NOAA and U.S. Department of Commerce leadership, extending up to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The NOAA team came early and stayed late. Throughout they focused on water as a defining 21st century challenge and shared with attendees the steps NOAA is taking across the board to meet the challenge. These steps started close to home – with honing NOAA observations and models for predicting the hydrologic cycle, regionally and short-range, extending out through seasonal and interannual-, and through to decadal and centennial global outlooks. But they extended to NOAA’s special responsibilities for coastal water forecasts and management, and to NOAA’s efforts to strengthen collaboration and partnerships with dozens of federal agencies, as well as hundreds of state and local agencies, international groups, and private-sector firms also working the problem.

The NOAA engagement energized the meeting. But in most sessions, the attention would quickly turn to a larger, more complicated, threefold problem: the food-energy-water nexus. The three resource challenges are joined at the hip. Agriculture requires immense quantities of fresh water, and energy in the form of fertilizers (and that needed to drive irrigation). Electrical utilities need water to cool the steam and other working fluids driving turbines. Desalination of sweater requires immense amounts of energy, and so on. We all recall from public school algebra that threefold problems such as

x +y + z = 10

x -y+2z =   9

3x +y – z = 4

must be solved simultaneously; they can’t be considered in isolation. A look at the first equation by itself might allow someone to think that maybe the solution was x=7, y=2, z=1. But the only integer solution satisfying all three equations is x=2, y=3, z=5.

This is a new challenge for humankind. (With some oversimplification – but only some) throughout the entirety of human experience until the present day, it sufficed to consider these three resource questions in isolation. The challenge going forward is, forever, far more demanding.

As highlighted in this blog, and in the book by the same name, the food-energy-water challenge is nested within a more general threefold challenge: dealing with Earth as a resource-, threat-, and victim. Meeting our resource needs? A big problem. Building resilience to hazards? Equally demanding. Protecting the environment and ecosystems? A struggle. But meeting our resource needs while building resilience to hazards and while protecting the environment and ecosystems is far more difficult than working on any of these three in isolation. In fact, in an ultimate sense, it’s an impossibility. Sooner or later, entropy wins. The best we can do, through continuous innovation, is buy ourselves time. The good news is, that much like the diabetic who relies on insulin, we’ve so far been pretty good at innovation, and so when it comes to time, we can probably buy lots of it.

This brings us back full circle to Dr. Martin Luther King, and a final threefold reality, also addressed in LOTRW, the book. It’s not enough to focus on physical realities alone: the physical sciences and technology. There’s an equally important, equally ironclad, immutable set of social realities that must be satisfied at the same time: the way our individual brains are wired and they way we engage each other in groups.

Many people try to stop there. They point to social realities as the reason science and technology fail to solve problems of poverty, disease, and hunger – and the abuse and anger and terrorism and wars they foment. They’re satisfied to first “explain” and then curse the darkness.

The power of Dr. King’s ministry to us while on this Earth was to remind us of a third set of realities: the spiritual. But there’s a unique difference here. In the earlier threefold problems, each additional consideration constrains the other, making the problem more difficult, in some cases intractable. But as Dr. King, and others, dating back to Jesus and even further, have pointed out – in this latter, transcendent threefold problem, the third spiritual factor is actually liberating, offering a way out.

Something to contemplate on Martin Luther King Day… maybe even integrating into a weekly rather than an annual rhythm. Depending upon our professions, you and I either spend a lot of time getting the physical realities straight, or the social realities straight, or perhaps muddling through a blend of both. We’d do well to balance that with equal attention to getting our heads right spiritually. We can give this a try alone, but it works better at the church, synagogue, or mosque of our choice.

That would refresh Martin Luther King’s (still living!) spirit.


[1]See the January 17, 2011 LOTRW post for further particulars on this “quote.” I’m still searching for the source/citation. Perhaps you have it and could share! In the meantime, in one of those pranks our brains play with us, I’m somewhat sure it’s close to verbatim… but more confident of the numbers 37 and 87… though that could be wrong as well. For the LOTRW memorials to Dr. King over succeeding years, click here.

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The 2016 AMS Annual Meeting. Big Data.

Every year, I look forward to coming to the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting. Some of the motivation remains the same year to year. But there’s always something additional, something new, something that makes the blood sing.

This year? For me personally? It’s the encounter between the AMS community and Big Data. Both have been around a while. The AMS traces its history back almost a century. By that standard, Big Data is a relative newcomer, but you’ve been seeing the impact for years on your computer… for example, in those ads on your Facebook page tailored to you (in my case, Rockport shoes, Viking cruises, and my stepson’s bicycle-wheel business). The Big Data firms have tamed high-velocity, high-volume, high-variety, variable-veracity data sets and are making them sing.

Much of the music so far has been marketing-oriented (that Facebook page providing a vivid demonstration). But the possibilities are expanding rapidly, especially now that all agencies of government are making a serious effort to migrate their data to the cloud. Data on the Earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere are part of this trend.

Good news for the Earth and all its inhabitants! We face critical problems with respect to natural resources – water, food, and energy, for example – and all the more as we attempt to maintain resource levels while building resilience to natural extremes and minimizing environmental degradation. A tough challenge, and getting more complex and contentious as margins shrink and the stakes grow year by year. But tomorrow’s problems only look impossible if we try to solve them using yesterday’s tools[1]. Big data promises to be the most (positive) disruptive player in this arena since the development of observing instruments and platforms of high diagnostic power, and since the early application of computers to modeling elements of the Earth system of the last century.

A specific example comes to us from amazon web services. Some excerpts from one of their recent posts (refer to this original link to access the full set of hyperlinks in the text below):

“In October, we announced that the real-time feed and full historical archive of original resolution (Level II) NEXRAD data is freely available on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for anyone to use. The Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) is a network of 160 high-resolution Doppler radar sites that enables severe storm prediction and is used by researchers and commercial enterprises to study and address the impact of weather across multiple sectors.

Early adopters have used the data to cut their product development time and ask new questions about weather-related phenomena. Today, we’re excited to share two new tools that make it even easier for you to analyze NEXRAD data and incorporate it into your workflows…

…WeatherPipe marshals the NEXRAD data into usable data structures and runs the job in Amazon Elastic MapReduce (EMR). The output is a NetCDF file that you can display in Unidata’s Integrated Data Viewer (IDV) and other visualization tools…


…One of the top requests from early users was for an easier way to incorporate the NEXRAD data into event-driven workflows. Today, we’re excited to announce that notifications are now available for both types of data.

We have set up public Amazon Simple Notification Service (SNS) topics for the “chunks” and archive data that create a notification for every new object added to the Amazon S3 buckets. To start, you can subscribe to these notifications using Amazon Simple Queue Service (SQS) and AWS Lambda. This means you can automatically add new real-time and near-real-time NEXRAD data into a queue or trigger event-based processing if the data meets certain criteria, such as geographic location…


…Visit our NEXRAD on AWS page for information on subscribing to these SNS topics and incorporating them into workflows. We’re excited to see what you do with this new capability!

These are just two of the early outcomes, from just one company, of the several CRADA’s NOAA has established with Big Data. A flood of such advances is coming[2], enabled by the simple switch from the old method of sending data to analytical tools to the new method of sending analytical tools to the data, and other opportunities Big Data provides – in days or weeks solving technical problems that have vexed Earth scientists for decades.

Which brings us to this year’s AMS Annual Meeting, and perhaps the next 3-4, running out to our 100th birthday meeting in 2020, in Boston (where it all began). In 5-10 years, these approaches to resource-, hazard-, and environmental problems will have become old hat. A new generation of scientists and practitioners won’t remember any other way of doing business. But for now, Big Data firms don’t yet fully understand which of their many capabilities will be good for what purposes – what will be most useful, and how, and why? And for now Earth scientists don’t comprehend what new tools are now or soon will be at their disposal. AMS Annual Meetings can serve as a venue for these discoveries to take place. Think of the AMS Annual Meetings as a speed-dating arena where Big Data firms and professionals – especially early-career professionals – can connect.

We’ll all be seeing the first hint of this in New Orleans over the next seven days. A few examples: Big Data will be a major theme of Saturday’s NWS International Workshop. Ariel Gold and others from amazon web services will be at the student conference reception Saturday night. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will be discussing this among other topics at her Monday noontime Town Hall in La Nouvelle C. Panelists will discuss the NOAA Big Data CRADAs on Tuesday afternoon from 1:30-3:00 in Room 342 of the Conference Center (for example, you can hear more about the NEXRAD work there).

Speaking of Secretary Pritzker, recall that Big Data’s capabilities emerge most powerfully when applied to diverse data sets. Imagine a new ability to merge NOAA data on hazard threats with Department of Commerce Census demographic data: the location of populations, especially populations of the vulnerable: the poor, the ethnic minorities, senior citizens and children. Envision being able to combine that information with data on the built environment from NIST, HUD, and other sources, and to anticipate special needs of those in harm’s way hours or days in advance. Think of what it will mean to put that assimilated information in the hands of emergency responders and social media. This is the best time in world history to be alive – except for tomorrow.

Expect to see this story line and other similar narratives unfolding at AMS in Seattle in 2017, in Austin in 2018, in Phoenix in 2019…


[1] As explained in more detail in the 2014 book, Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, American Meteorological Society

[2]one that will be a news story long after the current Mississippi flood here to greet AMS Meeting participants has been forgotten.

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Weather stories that will endure throughout 2016 and beyond.

Weather has figured in the news as we close out 2015 and enter 2016. For example, writing in the Washington Post, Darryl Fears and Angela Fritz note that:

“From the top of the world to near the bottom, freakish and unprecedented weather has sent temperatures soaring across the Arctic, whipped the United Kingdom with hurricane-force winds and spawned massive flooding in South America.

 The same storm that slammed the southern United States with deadly tornadoes and swamped the Midwest, causing even greater loss of life, continued on to the Arctic. Subtropical air pulled there is now sitting over Iceland, and at what should be a deeply sub-zero North Pole, temperatures on Wednesday appeared to reach the melting point — more than 50 degrees above normal. That was warmer than Chicago…

 …Thousands of miles south, in the center of Latin America, downpours fueled by the Pacific Ocean’s giant El Niño pattern have drenched regions of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay…

 …Up and down the U.S. East Coast, this month will close as the hottest December on record. In much of the Northeast into Canada, temperatures on Christmas rose into the 70s — tricking bushes and trees into bloom in many locations…

 …Almost two dozen levees along the Mississippi River are considered at risk, and forecasts are calling for record or near-record crests of the river and tributaries that feed it. Nearly 450 river ­gauges have hit flood stage since Monday…

 …Although river levels will begin to drop over the weekend, the floodwaters will continue to move downstream on the Mississippi through mid-January…”

The journalists go on to discuss conditions in Europe. They could have expanded their story to cover weather impacts in Asia, where the El Nino has contributed to record-breaking haze and air pollution, and more.

Such individual events capture our attention, but only briefly. They will be superseded by others as the year 2016 plays out. However, behind and towering over these episodes and those that lie ahead are several weather meta-stories, which will endure, not just for the year, but for decades to come. You might have your own additional or better list; here are four candidate examples.


Mr. Fears and Ms. Fritz are justified in labeling this present weather “freakish,” but in the larger scheme of things, the world’s weather is and always has been so. No two days’ weather are ever the same, and the Earth system is continually and forever accomplishing much of its business through extremes. For millennia, in fact for millions of years, we’ve had correspondingly unusual weather. What’s new is that we’re only now able to observe and fully comprehend weather manifested in remote regions of the world as well as weather’s global connectedness. For this we owe thanks to global satellite coverage and a host of other surface-based observing technologies of unprecedented diagnostic power. We’re like the blind person who’s suddenly gained sight. We’re undergoing the greatest flowering of awareness and understanding since the mid-1800’s, when the telegraph (the Victorian Internet) first allowed us to piece together a picture of weather patterns and their movement. Everything is going to look exotic for the next century or so. We should enjoy this time; it’ll be a sad day when and if the novelty wears off, when we lose our capacity for wonder about the Earth system – its nature and workings, its raw power and majesty, its enchanting beauty.

Weather will continue to amaze for decades.


Here’s a 21st-century irony. We’re increasingly vulnerable to weather even as our personal exposure to heat and cold, sun and rain is in decline. Most of us are in the virtual workplace of information technology which itself is embedded in the virtual climate of the heated/air-conditioned office. Even so, we’ve been forced to acknowledge our increasing sensitivity and changing vulnerability to weather, and especially extremes and even lesser departures from so-called “normals.” The big challenge here is the emerging mismatch between (1) the time-horizon of our strategies and investments for producing food, maintaining water and energy supplies, transporting people and goods, and a weather-sensitive economy; and (2) the time-horizon on which we can anticipate the threats weather and climate, and their associated effects on water, pose to those plans and ventures. We’re in essence flying blind. We’re placing bets at the poker table without looking at our own hand or those of the other players.

This is a recent development. In human experience prior to the past ten thousand years, we were nomads and hunter-gatherers. We could respond as needed to seasonal and weather shifts and their consequences for the availability of food and water. Our interdependent, increasingly urbanized world is now totally reliant on a complex critical infrastructure that is not a single system but an interwoven system of systems, whose performance under weather and climate variability is only poorly understood.

The global investments aggregate to many trillions of dollars, and they presuppose the infrastructure will remain useful and serviceable for many decades. Weather of unanticipated severity and climate change and variability are already exposing shortcomings in the original vision. For example, investments in the infrastructure needed to extract and distribute fossil fuels look suspect in light of the need to limit global warming. Dependence of agricultural yields on irrigation and pesticides looks unsustainable as unintended consequences of these practices emerge and their associated energy demands grow. The return on investment in coastal infrastructure is threatened by the prospect of sea-level rise.

We’ve also newly reduced our room for error and uncertainty. Even as recently as 200 years ago, most societies were rural and agricultural, and compensated for weather vulnerability by building generous margins into the system and relying on muddle-through strategies that would never be optimal for any given weather scenario but would always be adequate. Not so today. In developed societies, this is because margin has come to be associated with waste. Examples of deliberate decisions to reduce margin are seen in electricity, where deregulation and use of regional power grids has allowed a reduction in “excess” generating capacity; in agriculture, where schedules for crop planting and harvest are worked out between farmers and buyers months in advance, and food is delivered to supermarkets only hours before consumers buy it; and in fragile transportation systems where carrying capacity can plummet in inclement weather. In the undeveloped world, zero-margin is imposed by the richer nations – for example, encouraging farmers to grow cash crops for foreign consumption (coffee, soybeans, palm oil, even flowers…) versus food for domestic, in-country use.

We’re going to be flying blind in all these respects for some time. Unforeseen societal sensitivity to weather and climate will be a growing news story for the remainder of this century.

New Options.

Recent years have seen the emergence of questions such as… “Okay, your weather forecasts have improved. But how much do such improvements actually contribute to reduced property loss or improved business continuity in the face of severe weather? Given that the public often lacks options for self-protection in the face of danger, or fail to understand or respond to your warnings, how many lives do you actually save?”

Assessing the value of weather, water, and climate forecasts and outlooks will continue to be problematic, but one aspect of this narrative is beginning to change, and change favorably. The options for action in the face of changes in weather on all time and space scales are growing in number and effectiveness.

We have information technology to thank. It’s not just that IT has vastly advanced our ability to translate our observations of what the Earth system is doing now to what it is about to do next. Today’s IT allows us to provide that information to those in harm’s way or those who stand to benefit from favorable windows of opportunity in time for them to act. That possibility has engendered a lot of creative rejiggering of every sector of society to take fullest advantage of the information. The transportation sector has long been moving in this direction. Airlines now cancel and reschedule flights based on weather forecasts, rather than allowing their fleets to be snowbound. Ocean routing has long guided ship operations. Truckers use information on road weather to schedule the deliveries and develop workarounds. Other sectors are following this lead. Electricity consumers ranging from homeowners to industrial concerns are allowing utilities to vary their electricity use to offset bumps in demand. Utilities in turn use weather information to assess the availability of wind and solar power on the grid. Retailers use weather forecasts to increase sales of everything from snowplows to umbrellas while keeping inventories low. The military uses weather, water, and climate information to assess threats ranging from Somali pirates, to terrorists, to instability created by displaced populations. In many of these applications, we are seeing growing means for computer to talk to computer directly, eliminating the middleman (or woman).

Much more creativity is coming. Each advance in weather forecasting triggers tipping points where new real-time responses to weather become economically viable. And so-called Big Data – the increasing ability for cloud-based IT architectures to integrate multiple, diverse high-volume, high velocity data streams to provide impact-based decision support – will add unprecedented value to tomorrow’s weather, climate, and water information.


Growing Earth-system awareness, recognition of vulnerabilities, and realization of new options will attract the attention of journalists. Increasingly the press and the public will demand the right to life in the face of hazards (as represented by warnings and options for action) not limited to the richest in society but extending to the poorest and most disadvantaged. People worldwide will want homes that are the safest place to be during hazardous weather, not points of embarkation for evacuation. They’ll want jobs to return to after hazards have come and gone. They’ll come to expect continuity of critical services in the face of hazards, including electricity and water, but extending to transportation and schools, health care, and more. They’ll insist that natural hazards not trigger environmental disasters.

As the press and the public realize the possibilities, they’ll demand performance, from both political and business leaders and in turn from the meteorologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and others – whether government or private forecasters, whether scientists or broadcast meteorologists. Take the disgruntlement over the past several years about the performance of U.S. weather predictions relative to those coming from Europe; the frustration over so-called “missed” forecasts of heavy snow, when the weather patterns in question were accurately depicted but perhaps displaced by a few miles, etc. That’s just a foretaste of what’s coming.

And the legal profession may not be far behind. Likely the tempo and complexity of litigation will pick up markedly over the first half of the 21st century.

Weather-, water-, and climate. Awareness, sensitivity/vulnerability, new options, and demands for accountability.

Headline news.

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My New Year’s resolution for 2016.

“If you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.” – Will Rogers

“Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you are getting.” – widely quoted, with slight variations, by management experts; sometimes but not always attributed to Edwards Deming.

Slide1In 2016, I will do less digging.

The resolution would seem to have much to commend it – for each of us as individuals, and for the larger institutions and communities within which we live and work.

Let’s begin at the personal level.

First, the resolution entails doing less of something. In the 21st-century, with its 24/7 work culture and with stress and over-commitment a defining feature of everyone’s life, adding on an additional task of any sort is not an option. Less-of-something – less of anything – thereby freeing up time and energy – is the only viable starting point.

It gets better! Will Rogers reminds us that hole we’re in is truly a trap. Every effort to deepen it is adding to our future woes. Each shovelful removed is making it tougher to throw the dirt up and out of the hole the next time around. At each step, clambering out grows chancier. By contrast, when we stop digging, we’re freeing up time and energy extending days, weeks – maybe even years – ahead. That time and effort can then be put towards something entirely different – something more positive, satisfying, allowing us to fulfill our truest destiny.

The second quote, this from the business world, reminds us that even at a personal level, it’s not a series of single, unconnected actions – but rather our daily routines, our habits, our approach to getting things done, the structure we provide our lives – that is the root problem. The typical New Year’s resolution chips away at the tip of the iceberg instead of addressing the more fundamental causes. Overeating and eating the wrong foods is the end result of a long chain of practices including grocery shopping and the route you and I choose for our daily commute. Relating to each other – choosing between affirming or confronting, collaborating or competing, balancing listening with talking, empathizing versus problem solving, and more – is shaped more by systems patterns of thought and behavior we’ve programmed in our minds as much or more than by any spontaneity of the moment. Procrastination is an end product usually achieved not by any single cause but rather by concatenating an entire series/fabric of time-wasting habits, many of which, in moderation, are meritorious – staying abreast of local and world news, boning up on major developments in our field, maintaining contact with friends and colleagues, keeping up with household chores and office administration, etc. In each instance, causal chains such as these in turn typically manifest unresolved psychological, spiritual issues that lie deeper still.

But enough – better that you start with little more than the general premise – dig less – and work out your own specifics. What does this mean for your life and circumstance… and your 2016?

Three final considerations. First, put don’t try to solve the problem by getting better or faster at hole-digging. A bigger shovel, or a jackhammer, or a backhoe is not the answer! To illustrate, if you’re spending all your time responding to other people’s e-mails instead of proactively getting your work done, getting faster at responding to e-mails is not the answer.

Second, improve your skills at “early detection of hole-digging.” Too often we fail to notice we’re digging a hole until the top of that hole reaches eye level. We can work on that, maybe catching ourselves before we’re knee-deep. Maybe even at the sound of the first shovelful of dirt hitting the ground. Ultimately we might get good enough to turn our back on the shoveling while it’s still only in a gleam in our mind’s eye.

Third, as you give up vain hole-digging, don’t leave all that freed-up time hanging. Identify and adopt tangible alternative uses for it. Time for personal reflection. Intentional, thoughtful goal-setting. More listening, more collaboration, frequent self-evaluation, early detection of progress… there are endless possibilities; you get the idea.

Let’s turn now to the community level.

In geosciences and science-based services, we’ve been wrongheadedly digging several misplaced holes. Here are two examples; you can easily come up with your own, better additions or alternatives.

The climate-change debate.

From history’s rearview mirror, it seems we may have placed too much effort too early trying to jolt political leaders and the public into specific actions with respect to climate change. Hard to tell but it seems some of our exertions polarized and alienated these audiences rather than unifying and galvanizing them. The result may have been a delay in the kind of global groundswell that may finally be materializing from the Paris climate-change summit. In any event, this seems to be not just a hole but a vast pit where as a community we might stop digging and return to our science and see where that takes us.

Seeking resilience to hazards primarily through improved forecasts and emergency response.

We’ve worked hard to improve the accuracy and specificity of natural hazards forecasts, to move from predictions of environmental variables to impact-based watches and warnings, and to communicate these more effectively to those in harm’s way. More hard work remains to be done! But the fact is that community-level resilience is closely tied to land use, building construction, robust critical infrastructure, and distribution of wealth/poverty. Improved forecasts and emergency response are most effective when dealing with the residual risk remaining after these core issues have been tackled. We might do more as professionals to point to the fundamental limitations of emergency response when coping with natural hazards. When vexed by the continuing rise in property loss and the stubborn refusal of deaths and injuries to decline, we might acknowledge along with those management experts that [our approach] “…is perfectly designed to achieve the result we are getting.”

Another invitation to stop digging?

May your 2016 be prosperous and meaningful, both professionally and personally.

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Mary, did you know?

The Anunciation -- Leonardo da Vinci

The Anunciation — Leonardo da Vinci

Work for the American Meteorological Society, and soon you’re using “meteorology” to refer to more than terrestrial weather. You come to see it as a big tent, extending to hydrology, oceanography, and climatology – and even weather in space.

Christmas has come early for (big tent) meteorologists this year. Like everyone else, meteorologists long to matter, to make the world a better place. We all hunger for our lives to hold meaning and significance.

It helps to see that importance acknowledged – to find decision makers and the public using meteorological science and services. And that’s precisely what’s been happening in the closing months of 2015, with regard to weather, water, and climate forecasts on all scales.

Start with life-threatening weather. Just two of many examples – some 22 hurricanes and typhoons reached category 4- and 5-levels this past season, breaking the previous record. Closer to home, Christmas week has seen a rare and dangerous December tornado outbreak across the southeastern United States. Such extremes used to develop without much advance notice, breaking into the news cycle after the fact. But not in 2015. Currently, even days ahead, those in threatened areas get the message and begin to pay attention to watches and warnings – and respond.

The same holds for larger-scale, more enduring features. For months now, forecasters have been issuing outlooks for strong El Nino development. Peoples from southeast Asia, the full extent of North and South America, and indeed worldwide have braced themselves for the associated departures from normal seasonal patterns in weather and the resulting impacts on human safety, food and water supplies, energy demands, and even the economy. As the event has unfolded, the American public from California (hoping for drought relief) to the eastern seaboard (looking for a white Christmas but finding daytime temperatures reaching into the seventies instead) have sustained a buzz about El Nino’s control of their local and regional weather.

Finally, the Paris Climate Change Accord shows nations worldwide to be cutting back on fossil fuel consumption and investing many billions of dollars more – in order to head off the impacts of warmer temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation extremes, sea-level rise on food, water, and energy supplies; on ecosystems; and on public health – even though these contingencies lie decades or centuries in the future.

Despite this progress, meteorologists aren’t feeling particularly smug. Instead they’re preoccupied with the job remaining. Three challenges block the way: more accurate weather, climate, and water forecasts per se; better understanding of the linkages connecting environment and impacts; and improved communication all around.

Speaking of communication, this is Christmas Day, and so it’s only natural to think about communication in another context: that moment 2000 years ago when the angel Gabriel delivered a hard-to-fathom forecast to the virgin Mary. The account comes from Luke Chapter 2:

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Examine the conversation closely. While it seems that the angel’s forecast was 100% true, it was a little vague with regard to the particulars[1]. But it would take two thousand years for this incongruity to catch the attention of the – famous social scientists? – no, song writers Mark Lowry (lyrics in 1984) and Buddy Greene (melody, 12 years later). They thought to ponder some of what had been omitted from the angel’s message. The happy result was Mary, Did You Know:

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.


Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.


Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..

Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..


The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.

The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb!


Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.


Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..

Mary, did you know?

Repetition and knowing the outcome have dulled our appreciation for Gabriel’s conversation with Mary. But look at it from the perspective of social science. Surely psychologists would agree that this would be a lot to take in, especially for a teenage girl of humble circumstances. Sociologists would stress the dreadful consequences to a woman for pregnancy out of wedlock in that culture and time (little different today). Risk-communication experts might stress that it wasn’t action-based, that it didn’t provide Mary with options. Somehow, though, both Gabriel and Mary found it adequate – and Mary was able to move on.

Why the emphasis here? It’s not just that it’s Christmas Day. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary reminds us that we too are operating on only the sketchiest understanding of our calling and the meaning of our lives. It’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that Mary wasn’t blessed with sudden, deep insight. More likely she progressively but only gradually became aware of the fuller import of what was unfolding. And that understanding was belated – comprehended through life’s rearview mirror. Similarly, much like Mary, our lives and our impacts on each other and on history going forward are far more significant than we ever imagine.

In closing, it goes without saying that Mark Lowry’s questions are much more meaningful when sung. For years, my favorite version of Mary, Did You Know? has been the Kathy Mattea rendition; but there’s a video by Pentatonix (over 50 million hits) that merits a view/listen.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Today and every day, may your soul feel its worth.  [2]


[1]Gabriel also omitted some of the particularly tough bits… such as Mary would witness her son’s crucifixion a third of a century later, before his resurrection three days later.

[2] You can find LOTRW Christmas posts from prior years here.

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Congress signals its intentions toward the geosciences.

“The federal budget is a policy statement.” – widely-quoted Washington aphorism, of unknown origin.

“Here’s the way to look at the budget. Next year is a disaster. This year is better than we thought it would be. Last year is the best year we ever had … and it’s a sliding scale.” – Robert Alvis, Boulder-based NOAA budget analyst, ca. the early 1970’s.

Recent language in several House and Senate authorization bills has suggested limiting federal agency budgets in the geo-sciences. (With considerable oversimplification) a variety of different rationales have been invoked, depending upon the targeted agency: relative contributions to innovation (NSF); the priority of earth sciences relative to planetary exploration (NASA), and Congressional desire to focus on improved weather forecasts at the expense of funding for climate research and services (NOAA).

But the appropriations language in the text of this week’s FY2016 year-end spending bill seems to tell a different story. Here’s a summary provided by the American Institute of Physics:


On the face of it, 2016 funding for the physical sciences generally looks strong. What’s more, the details suggest sustained funding for Earth observations from satellite platforms and for geosciences across the board. (Parenthetically, it appears that threatened cuts to NSF social and behavioral sciences failed to materialize.) In addition, federal subsidies promoting the development and use of renewable energy are also to be maintained.

Those in the business of advancing and maintaining the Earth observations, science, and services critical to

  • maintaining public safety in the face of natural hazards,
  • optimizing weather-sensitive economic decisions,
  • maintaining national security in the face of weather-and-climate-triggered displacement of populations,
  • coping with the challenges posed at the food-energy-water nexus, and
  • making good on the commitments implicit in the recently-concluded Paris climate accord (as reviewed in the previous LOTRW post)

should see the budget glass as substantially better than half-full.

Congress is inviting the Earth sciences community to look past the current political rhetoric that marks the 2016 Presidential campaign and any differences between legislative and executive branches about the politicization of science. This budget is strong affirmation of the contributions geoscientists have made to date and faith in the community’s continuing ability to innovate and deliver. The message seems especially positive considering the other claims on federal dollars – entitlements, increased interest rates on the national debt, defense, and rebuilding decayed infrastructure, for example. Scientists and engineers can reasonably continue to focus on the very real task of innovating the country’s way forward in Earth sciences and their application for the benefit of life.

Geo-scientists should also be heartened by a second reality. The cost is low. The research and services make up a small fraction (less than 1%) of the federal budget and only 0.1% of US GDP. There’s plenty of room for continuing growth of U.S. investments in the geo-sciences at a rate of 5%/year or more for many years. And that’s framing the geosciences as a cost. In fact, such research, like all innovation, is not a sunk cost so much as an opportunity, returning  that U.S. investment many times over in terms of direct growth to the domestic economy, (non-monetizable) protection and enhancement of the ecological services on which we all depend, new foreign markets for American business, and  contributions to national security[1].

The Nation has reaffirmed its support for our Earth sciences community and our work. Now it’s up to us to deliver.

A quick infomercial: one opportunity for us to jump-start the needed progress is the upcoming 2016 AMS Annual Meeting, scheduled for January 10-14 in New Orleans.  Hope to see many of you there.


[1] This topic and implicit opportunities are covered in more detail in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, American Meteorological Society, (2014) (also available through amazon).

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The Paris postulate: the hidden assumption in the latest climate accord.

paris accord

Postulate (n.) something taken as self-evident or assumed without proof as a basis for reasoning. –
Read the draft Paris Agreement from the 21st session of the conference of the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change and you’ll find it explicit on virtually every aspect of this real-world challenge:

  • shared international intent to limit warming to 1.5– 2.00C;
  • reducing emissions due to deforestation and forest degradation;
  • building the mutual trust and confidence needed for collaboration and implementation;
  • anticipating and compensating for loss and damage resulting from climate change; and
  • establishing and drawing upon a number of financial instruments to cover the costs of all this.
  • Each of the signatories promises to update and communicate a new, more ambitious, nationally-determined contribution every five years.

But the document postulates – accepts as a given, without any real discussion – that Earth observations, science, and services will be available to enable all this. Also unspoken? Such observations, models, and conceptual understanding, taken together, comprise an international critical infrastructure that underpins any national or global hope of assessing progress toward these goals. To illustrate:

Limit warming to 1.50– 2.00C? This requires detailed measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations – globally, as well as near sources and sinks, and able to assign attribution. It assumes scientific models that capture the direct radiative impacts of these gases, accurately predict the resulting higher-order climate feedbacks, and incorporate coupled human-natural system interactions.

Deforestation? This implies an ability to monitor deforestation and its opposite, afforestation, an understanding of the longer-term fates of carbon released or captured in these ways, the functions of the ecosystems that replace the forests or are replaced by them, the related implications for storage of carbon in soils, and much more.

Loss and damage? This refers not simply to property loss and economic disruption, but also to environmental degradation, compromised ecosystem services, and impacts on other forms of natural capital – vital functions and capabilities that are hard to inventory and to monetize.

Trust and confidence, collaboration, communication? This presupposes the existence broadly across the 200-some signatories of in-country expertise on all aspects of climate science and technology sufficient to monitor progress, establish goals, compare with other nations, etc. It also assumes an educated public in each nation, holding scientists and political leaders accountable for continuing progress.

The bottom line? Without measurements, without science, without STEM education, sustained over decades, the Paris climate accord is meaningless.

This reality should both hearten and prompt concerns.

Why take heart? A quarter-century of climate-change framework conventions suggests that the science community has been doing its job – identifying emerging risks and opportunities from a long way off, and bringing them to the world’s attention. Science – in particular the NOAA-Keeling CO2 curve, and the NOAA-GFDL model equating a doubling of CO2 to a temperature rise of several degrees – drove the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Every IPCC report and conference since has reflected not only the great body of pre-existing science but continuing new contributions and additional understanding.

The course of that progress has not been smooth. It’s been marked by rough patches and bumps in the road – sharp disagreements among scientists, between scientists and policymakers, and among the world’s many publics, both domestic and international. Understandably, many if not most of the players have felt beleaguered and put upon by the conflict and criticism. At the same time they’ve been frustrated by the slow pace of progress on both the scientific and policy fronts. But the contentiousness has not stemmed from any defects in the knowledge or understanding or character of the parties. Instead it’s characterized the conversation because the climate change issue is so consequential. What’s more, unlike, say, the ozone hole which was amenable to a simple fix, it’s threaded through the whole of society and will require write-offs of sunk costs and years of additional investment to unwind. But viewed in the rearview mirror, the discussion and the policymaker response over the past twenty-five years arguably looks as much like a success as a failure.

Why be concerned? Because all players can see clearly that the mountains left to climb are far steeper and more forbidding than the middling foothills we’ve surmounted to date. The Earth observations, science, and services community is in the position of the precocious college senior who’s aced all the courses and dazzled peers and faculty alike, but now recognizes that the adult workplace will demand tangible accomplishment versus mere demonstration of potential. The observations that sufficed for the first exploratory work need to be improved with respect to diagnostic power, local detail, global coverage, temporal resolution, and staying power. The models that showed heuristic promise don’t yet show the chops needed to guide a society placing trillion-dollar bets on climate mitigation, adaptation, and reparations. The scientific understanding that seems so advanced relative to 18th– or 19th-century ideas looks wobbly and vague measured against future needs. The integration of natural-system and human-system models looks particularly problematic. Scientists able to contribute substantively to progress are in short supply, especially across the developing world. Publics struggle to comprehend yesterday’s science, let alone the complexities that will characterize the future implications of science and technology for society.

Especially sobering is the realization that what’s demanded in all these respects is not simply incremental improvement but a transcendent leap forward. Our community might be forgiven for harboring very real doubts about our ability to deliver.

Fortunately, there are additional reasons to take heart. These will be covered in the next post.

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Progress! The Paris climate accord.


“How wonderful, how beautiful,

when brothers and sisters get along! It’s like costly anointing oil

flowing down head and beard,

Flowing down Aaron’s beard,

flowing down the collar of his priestly robes.

It’s like the dew on Mount Hermon

flowing down the slopes of Zion.

Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing,

ordains eternal life.” – Psalm 133. A Song of Ascents

The December 12-13, 2015 weekend news headlines touch on many subjects, but almost all make some reference to the U.N.-sponsored climate meetings that are wrapping up in Paris after two weeks of deliberations. Some 196 nations have signed onto the draft accord. The 31-page draft statement addresses a range of policy issues: shared international intent to limit warming to 1.50– 20C; reducing emissions due to deforestation and forest degradation; building the mutual trust and confidence needed for collaboration and implementation; anticipating and compensating for loss and damage resulting from climate change; and establishing and drawing upon a number of financial instruments to cover the costs of all this. Each of the signatories promises to update and communicate a new, more ambitious, nationally-determined contribution every five years.

Good news, especially to a beleaguered world that could use some cheer. Our global engagement as nations and individuals has lately been marked by war; terrorism; a world economy struggling to regain a bit of momentum following the 2008 meltdown; desperate poverty; religious schisms; mistrust, polarization, and willingness to forego truth in looking for shortcuts to sway hearts and minds on every subject imaginable; and millions of refugees on the move, fleeing violent hotspots. In the midst of all that dysfunction and clamor, how remarkable to find world leaders, governments, and publics in agreement on this complex, multi-faceted swarm of momentous challenges.

The accord is therefore heartening in two respects.

First, on its own merits. It represents a substantive good-faith effort to solve a major set of challenges often lumped together under the label of climate change: global warming; changes in precipitation patterns and especially in the location and intensity of extremes of storm, flood, and drought; sea-level rise; ocean acidification; accompanying impacts on ecosystems, food and water supplies, and human health; and more. A key component is reduction on fossil-fuel dependence, but other steps are required, encompassing forest and ecosystem management, and adaptation, especially to extremes. All agree that the initial measures to be taken globally will not attain the desired goal, but that stepwise improvements by all parties every five years just might get us there. To see nations setting aside their differences with respect to so many of 21st-century challenges and even their widely divergent views with respect to this one in order to settle on a course of action is by itself encouraging. It promises a better future for the planet and all seven billion of us. We haven’t seen such an improvement in our prospects since the end of the Cold War.

Second, because the policy approach can be extended to other global challenges. Important as the climate accord is intrinsically, it is far more encouraging in a second, broader respect. Nations of the world have tacitly reaffirmed their willingness to set aside differences in common cause. In the process, they’ve created (or adapted, depending on your point of view) a template for solving a number of the other ills that assail us. The key(s)? A list something like this:

  • reduce the emphasis on assigning blame
  • set a generally-acceptable global aspirational goal, no matter how low the bar (in this case, a maximum acceptable temperature rise)
  • don’t insist that nations conform to a cookie-cutter approach going forward; instead
  • articulate individual national perspectives on the problem
  • describe with some clarity and specificity what steps respective domestic in-country politics will allow, and commit to those individually acceptable measures; and finally,
  • commit to continuing, open dialog, and continuous improvement in performance nation by nation, to close the gap between the initial pace of progress, and the accelerated pace required down the road.

There’s probably not a single 21st-century problem that can’t be resolved using this approach[1].


Three closing observations.

First, don’t mistake bumps in the road for failure. The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit was widely viewed at the time as a step back from preceding conferences. But in fact the tumult and negotiations there contained the seeds of the new approach that after six years of discussion have led to this past week’s success.

Second, thousands of years ago, the Middle East knew only Judaism[2]; it had yet to be joined and extended by Christianity and Islam. Israelites who went up to Jerusalem to worship several times a year would sing songs of ascents as they made their climb[3]. The Pilgrims understood the transcendent importance of being in community with one another – brothers and sisters getting along. They didn’t see this as trivial. Instead they saw something fundamentally priestly about it, a dimension of ministry to one another, and respect for the sanctity of ministry reciprocally offered and received by all parties. Chances are they’d have recognized a similar spirit in Paris – made all the more remarkable by the terrible events of just a few weeks prior.

Third, Earth scientists still face great tasks ahead, but ought to allow themselves a measure of satisfaction from their contributions to the decades of deliberation and dialog leading up to the Paris Summit. All the field work and experiments and analysis and modeling – and yes, disputes and disagreements and flare-ups – have been needed to get the world focused on coping strategies for climate change. At the same time we might contemplate whether we can make greater contributions to future progress by getting along a bit better as we continue our climb.


[1] In fact, J.F. Rischard proposed an approach very similar to this in his highly readable and prescient book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them (2003)

[2] and variations of idol worship

[3] the songs of ascents are worth reading in their entirety. Eugene Peterson, in his 1980 book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction provides an excellent commentary; it’s drawn-from here.

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