Does COP-26 have an Achilles heel? It could be a lack of the needed workforce.

Head of Thetis from an Attic red-figure pelike, c. 510–500 BC, Louvre
According to Greek mythology, Thetis (the first helicopter parent?) tried to confer immortality on her son Achilles by immersing him in the River Styx that ran through Hades. But she held onto him by a heel, which was therefore left unprotected. In the end, that vulnerability would prove his undoing.

This past week and over the next, those worldwide who are alarmed (and many of the merely concerned) by climate change are riveted on the daily news from COP-26, the latest in a multi-year series of global summits on that existential challenge.

Thousands of people have assembled in Glasgow for the event. They span the gamut – from world political leaders to Greta Thunberg to corporate executives to representatives from civil society. Let’s start with the important minority there to conduct United Nations business. They are negotiating and solemnizing the particulars necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to evolving climate threats, and stand up mechanisms and instrumentalities for financing the whole. Last week their presidency programme focused in turn on the world leaders’ summit; finance; energy; youth and public empowerment; and then nature itself. In the second week they shift attention to adaptation, loss, and damage; gender; science and innovation; transport; cities, regions, and the built environment.

This first group is vastly outnumbered by others running a so-called  Green Zone Programme of Events, offering an eclectic range of contributions from artists, corporations, civil society, universities, government agencies, and other constituencies. All are hoping to garner wider attention to their views, their skills, their needs, and their proposed solutions. An accompanying media frenzy is pushing out video, op-eds, and backstory to the rest of us.

That media coverage is quite diverse in emphasis and focus. Every point of view is finding some outlet. But in one crucial respect the messages are essentially unanimous. They all anticipate that the likely COP-26 outcomes – fossil fuel reductions, caps on methane emissions, afforestation and the rest – will remain well short of the fixes needed to bound global warming at 1.50C. Faced with tough choices, nations and their leaders find themselves hesitant to step up.

But an even more worrisome challenge remains unaddressed – indeed (also unanimously) unmentioned. A quick and admittedly subjective assessment of all various agendas, schedules and sessions for the week finds one topic MIA:

The needed workforce.

Of paramount concern is the lack of the skilled workforce needed to decarbonize the economy. One estimate: to meet a US goal of clean energy by 2035 will require 900,000 workers (a fourfold increase over today’s levels; current growth trends are projected to provide less than half that number). Wind energy companies are also vigorously competing for scarce talent. Engineering skills ranging from energy assessment to project management/design are needed. Offshore projects require additional skill sets and face similar labor shortages. And the challenge doesn’t end there; the need for workforce to operate and maintain the systems coming online poses additional requirements. Consider this single example, from the October 23rd issue of The Economist): the coming shortage of mechanics trained to repair electric vehicles. The UK alone is expected to require 90,000 newly-trained electric-vehicle mechanics by 2030. This is just one of myriad niche needs facing a global society attempting to innovate itself out anthropogenic climate change.  

The glib answer often given in response to this concern is that the needed workforce will come from the nearest-neighbors. Oil workers, including off-shore oil workers, can be retrained for the wind energy work. Automobile mechanics can be similarly retrained. And so on. But a closer look shows that such redeployment is not trivial. For example, while rotating the tires on an EV should be little different from the task for any other car, work on the electric motor or a 900-volt battery is substantially different from tinkering with a combustion engine.

What might be called climate-change workforce gaps would be problem enough if they were occurring in isolation. But that’s not what’s happening in today’s real world. In 2020, economists predicted a “90% economy” after the global lockdowns. The recovery of restaurants, hotels, bars and other businesses in the entertainment sectors would be slow. Travel and tourism would also struggle to bounce back. The recovery has in fact been slow, but not because of reduced demand. Instead it has proved to be labor shortages that are forcing these businesses to reduce hours of operation, occupancy, and delay and stretch service provision. Crew shortages are forcing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights. A post-pandemic shortage of housing stems in part from shortages of construction labor. Supply chains of every description, from computer chips for automobiles to this year’s Christmas presents, have all been disrupted, again aggravated by corresponding dislocations in labor supply. In many retail outlets, the product advertising that used to greet customers has been replaced by prominent “we’re hiring!” signs.

(In fact, there is historic precedent for this. Prior to the Black Death, the bubonic plague which killed a third of the European population over the time span of a year or between 1346-1353, feudalism held sway. Nobility enjoyed wealth while laborers were held in poverty. But in the years following, the labor shortage gave the serfs the upper hand. The middle class was born.)

The world will successfully decarbonize, build resilience to natural hazards, and protect habitats and the environment only by growing the needed workforce. This in turn requires that governments and peoples develop and implement policy toward this end.

What policies would be beneficial?

A recent AMS Policy Program Study, Who Will Make Sense of All the Data? Assessing the Impacts of Technology on the Weather, Water, and Climate Workforce, provides some preliminary insights. The authors synthesized expert perspectives with published views. All see a future marked by rapid, continual, and sustained innovation and social change. In particular:

  • Proliferating sensors, platforms, and networks are making data more available
  • Advances in chip technology and cloud resources are spurring the uptake of artificial intelligence and machine learning (as well as a shift in the dominant programming language)

These trends hold corresponding implications for the weather-, water-, and climate workforce:

  • Data management and systems-thinking skills are needed
  • Continual innovation favors workers who are adaptable, who can quickly adopt and master new tools
  • The ability to problem-solve and think at a systems level need to be broadly brought to bear across WWC science.
  • Continual development of new technologies will likely also favor workers committed to and comfortable with lifelong learning.
  • Workers with these qualifications will be highly sought after not just within the WWC enterprise, but beyond it, posing challenges for employers
  • The challenges go beyond those individual employers can address.

Community-wide, even nationwide policies will be needed:

  • These extend both to renewed approaches to K-12 and higher education; as well as continuing training and education for mid- and late-career workforce.
  • Here as elsewhere in society, improvement in diversity, equity, and justice is paramount.

Two closing comments. First, policies must necessarily “favor the carrot rather than the stick.” As the post-covid shortage of service workers daily demonstrates, peoples can’t be forced to work at specific tasks. They need incentives, not regulations. And while straight economic incentives are necessary, they will not be sufficient. Work needs to be meaningful, satisfying, productive.

Second, it might seem that the weather, water, and climate workforce is the merest sliver of a much larger workforce that is the one that truly matters. True enough. But consider this: the environmental intelligence that is mined from weather, water, and climate data is the fundamental starting point for guiding some $100T of food, water, and energy infrastructure investments that must be made worldwide over the next twenty years. Otherwise, much of that colossal sum will be directed in wasteful ways. And the world will fail to meet COP-26 targets.

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Economists channel their inner meteorologist.

The October 23-29 print edition of The Economist features a cover story entitled Instant Economics: the real time revolution. The story is good news for the Weather (Water, and Climate) Enterprise, and good news for the larger world.

(To grossly simplify), the article notes that throughout the history of economics, the relevant data – levels of economic activity, employment, money flows, etc. – have been developed and made available only months (in some cases many months) after the fact. This may not have been too injurious to the advance of economic theory on timescales of decades, but it has limited its practical application. This has been particularly vexing to governments attempting to adjust fiscal and monetary policy to the needs of time and circumstance.

According to The Economist, the exigencies of the pandemic have combined with increasingly muscular and capable information technology to change all that. The result was that governments worldwide were able to see the economic impacts of the global and national shutdowns at the time of the pandemic’s onset. They were able to institute quick-fix policies, track their effects, detect emerging consequences (both good and bad), and adjust and adapt accordingly. They could identify needs; target and distribute stimulus checks; recommend government pledges to buy vaccines, etc. early – well before shortfalls in economic activity and sector-by-sector impacts would have shown up in traditional data. The article explores in some detail the emergence of new digital proxies for economic activity, based on novel private-sector data sets – tracking the mobility of mobile phone pings, or interpreting OpenTable real-time estimates of restaurant use, and myriad others – that make nimble reaction possible. They contrast this present-day government agility with the slow response and missteps that characterized government interventions as recently as the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

This story should sound familiar to meteorologists. A similar shift occurred in our field – only it began a bit earlier – actually, 180 years ago. Prior to that time, meteorologists exchanged weather information by letter. By this means, it was just barely possible, and only long after the fact, to piece together occasional vague pictures of patterns in weather and their movements. The invention of the telegraph changed all that. Telegraph operators began sharing local weather data over their lines. Weather patterns and their movements came more sharply into focus. Worldwide, national weather services came into being.

Initially, those services were confined to nowcasts – depictions of prevailing conditions. But not long after, weather forecasting became a thing. And if we “forecast by analogy” in view of the vibrancy of the new data-based economic research (also documented in the article), it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision near-to-intermediate term improvements over the next decade in the quality, number, and specificity of economic forecasts.

That matters, because weather forecasts are about more than public safety in the face of weather hazards. They are also vital to wringing the last bit of economic value out of weather benefits to sensitive sectors. And these touch virtually every aspect of the economy – from the obvious, such as agriculture, water resources, and energy use and renewable-energy availability, to the more subtle, such as ground-, air-, sea-, and riverine transportation or public buying preferences in the face of weather or even election turnouts.

To be fair, weather predictions have always been used to guide economic activity as well as protect people and property from harm. This goes back long before the recent impact-based decision support services (IDSS) label was applied. Business and governments have sought and received such service from the National Weather Service and the larger Weather Enterprise for decades. But climate change, and new vulnerabilities of communities and economies to disruption of critical infrastructure are driving growing complexity, urgency, and stakes of such work. They’re also making it more important to take into account not just the connections between the big-picture weather patterns and what goes on in local weather details, but the corresponding connections between macro-economics and the outlook and proper strategies for the micro-economic sphere – individual corporations and small business. The new interest in and understanding of these economic connections, and new analytic capabilities for teasing them out, make it likely that the weather (and climate) information will be wielded more adeptly across all walks of life, and that value of weather (and climate) forecasts will grow commensurately.

The full Economist article notes that this creative destruction of economics (to use Schumpeter’s term) is creating new winners (“collaborators”) and losers (“lone wolves”) among economic researchers, with “lab leaders” somewhere in between.

A word, especially to early-career scientists in our field: anticipate that something similar will happen across meteorology – and at the nexus of these two major disciplines. Embrace this opportunity! Supplement your meteorological nous with enough background in business and economics to pull your weight in multi-disciplinary collaboration; enhance your usefulness (and personal brand) further by acquiring some familiarity with artificial intelligence. AMS journals can help – including both the now-venerable Weather and Society and the newbie, Artificial Intelligence for the Earth Systems. Learn more about related topics at the upcoming 2022 AMS Annual Meeting (including the 38th Conference on Environmental Information Technologies and the 21st Conference on Artificial Intelligence for Environmental Science and so much more).

Do this and you can write your own ticket over the course of your career. And help a needy, challenged world at the same time.

What are you waiting for?

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Stream-of-consciousness: flowing from remembering Francis Bretherton, to end-use climate assessment, to Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson

stream of consciousness: a narrative mode or method that attempts “to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which [sic] pass through the mind” of a narrator.

When I was in high school, my English teachers introduced me to this notion and terminology, as well as a few bits of the corresponding literary genre. It was all eye-opening and fascinating.

Years later, coming up on the eleventh anniversary of LOTRW (that’ll be around the end of this month) and over 990 posts (taking the WordPress metadata at face value) I’ve had opportunities to reflect on blogs as inherently a “stream-of-consciousness” form. In fact, one of their attractions from the outset and all along has been the idea that at any point it would be okay to write about whatever happened to be on my mind versus sticking to some specified path.

So here’s an example. In response to the previous post, a remembrance of Francis Bretherton, I received an e-mail from Roger Pielke, Sr. After some kind words, he offered a link to a recent paper he’d co-authored, entitled Environmental and Social Risks to Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health—A Bottom-Up, Resource-Focused Assessment Framework, noting that “it built on the framework [Bretherton] advocated.”

Here’s the Pielke, Sr., et al. abstract, quoted verbatim:

Risks from human intervention in the climate system are raising concerns with respect to individual species and ecosystem health and resiliency. A dominant approach uses global climate models to predict changes in climate in the coming decades and then to downscale this information to assess impacts to plant communities, animal habitats, agricultural and urban ecosystems, and other parts of the Earth’s life system. To achieve robust assessments of the threats to these systems in this top-down, outcome vulnerability approach, however, requires skillful prediction, and representation of changes in regional and local climate processes, which has not yet been satisfactorily achieved. Moreover, threats to biodiversity and ecosystem function, such as from invasive species, are in general, not adequately included in the assessments. We discuss a complementary assessment framework that builds on a bottom-up vulnerability concept that requires the determination of the major human and natural forcings on the environment including extreme events, and the interactions between these forcings. After these forcings and interactions are identified, then the relative risks of each issue can be compared with other risks or forcings in order to adopt optimal mitigation/adaptation strategies. This framework is a more inclusive way of assessing risks, including climate variability and longer-term natural and anthropogenic-driven change, than the outcome vulnerability approach which is mainly based on multi-decadal global and regional climate model predictions. We therefore conclude that the top-down approach alone is outmoded as it is inadequate for robustly assessing risks to biodiversity and ecosystem function. In contrast the bottom-up, integrative approach is feasible and much more in line with the needs of the assessment and conservation community. A key message of our paper is to emphasize the need to consider coupled feedbacks since the Earth is a dynamically interactive system. This should be done not just in the model structure, but also in its application and subsequent analyses. We recognize that the community is moving toward that goal and we urge an accelerated pace

Hmm. What’s particularly fascinating here are the echoes to end-use-based climate-assessment approaches that have been proposed by Richard Moss and collaborators, and that are currently being pursued, with help from emerging networks such as SCAN (the Science for Climate Action Network). The basic idea – greatly over-simplified – is to complement conventional assessments (that start with scientific findings and consider the possible impacts) with assessments that start with societal questions and concerns and drill down to identify the existing science that is relevant and/or new science that would be most useful to addressing those particular societal needs.

Wound up reading Roger’s paper in its entirety and forwarding the link to colleagues in the Policy Program here at AMS (full disclosure: who are pursuing work along SCAN-like lines with support from NOAA’s Climate Program Office). Might add, this came as the United States has finally sorted out its path forward for developing the next U.S. National Climate Assessment.

In turn, this material called to mind a similar policy shift at the US National Weather Service that has been underway over the past few years – a move from production-of-forecast focus to a starting point that begins with end-use (also known as impact-based decision support, or IDSS) and works back.

But (building on today’s metaphor) that’s a bit further downstream, possibly (no promises!) the subject of a future post…


Drifting around the final bend-in-today’s-stream-of-consciousness: Paul Robeson, and his powerful (and evolving) renditions of Old Man River (the video here provides his latter-day version of the song’s lyrics – changes described in the Wikipedia link above to his biography). The man was an extraordinary artist (singer and actor) but much more – a lawyer, political activist, McCarthyist target, athlete. His life story is painful to recall but inspiring in like measure – a microcosm of the rough road facing Americans of color throughout the 20th century. Perhaps you have the time for a bit of a read, a little remembrance, and some soul-searching in light of today’s troubles.

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Francis Bretherton, 1935-2021

Francis Bretherton, during the NCAR/UCAR years. © 2021 UCAR

The Earth sciences community lost one of its most luminous, influential lights on June 27th, with the passing of Francis Bretherton. The Webster-Kirkwood Times, a newspaper from the area near St. Louis where he had lived out his final years, did a respectful, crisp job of presenting the essentials. Here’s an excerpt:

Francis was born in Oxford, England, in 1935, to Russell and Jocelyn Bretherton. In 1953, he met his future wife, Inge, while he was a high school exchange student in Munich, Germany.  They were married in 1959.  

After receiving his doctoral degree in fluid dynamics from the University of Cambridge, he became a Lecturer at Cambridge and a Fellow of King’s College, embarking on a career of pioneering research into geophysical fluid dynamics. In 1969, he moved to The Johns Hopkins University as professor of earth and planetary sciences. In 1973, he was invited to serve as president of the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research and concurrently director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, positions he held until 1980.

In 1983, he chaired an interdisciplinary committee of scientists to advise the U. S. government on Earth-related research priorities.  Two seminal reports by this “Earth System Science” Committee (1986 and 1988) presented a multidisciplinary vision of the Earth’s environment and climate as a set of interlinked components. The Committee’s recommendations led to a presidential initiative in 1989 to establish a still ongoing U.S. Global Change Research Program. It also facilitated NASA’s development of an Earth Observing System from space. 

In 1988, Francis became director of the Space Science and Engineering Center and Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work won him widespread recognition, including awards from the Royal Meteorological Society, the American Meteorological Society, and the World Meteorological Organization. He mentored an impressive group of graduate students, who went on to influential careers of their own. Francis retired in 2001. He and Inge continued to live in Madison. while enjoying travel, classical music, and the outdoors. In 2017, he and Inge moved to St. Louis to be closer to family…

If you’re one of the thousands of scientists, engineers, graduate students, or climate-service providers who are or have been supported in part by the $40-50B that the federal government has invested in the U. S. Global Change Research Program over the past three decades, you owe a debt to this man. Fact is, all of us do. Billions worldwide stand to benefit from actions underway to mitigate or adapt to climate change – actions pursued with greater vigor and purpose today because of work he helped inspire.

Some personal reflections:

Start with raw intellect. We’ve all met bright people in our lives. In many, maybe even most cases, they’re very bright. But most people who’d ever met Francis would include him in their top ten. Maybe their top five. Maybe the brightest. Take this figure:

the Bretherton “conceptual” Earth system diagram, as it appeared at the time in many NASA documents

When Francis introduced this in the 1980’s he referred to it as a conceptual diagram of the Earth system. (Conceptual? Really? To most of us at the time it looked like an unfathomable rats’ nest. The diagram was definitely an acquired taste.) Today it’s known as the Bretherton diagram.

As it happens, this diagram captures a bit of the flavor of the importance of “the tail” behind “the tooth” of innovation discussed in the previous LOTRW post. Even by the 1980’s, at the time this diagram was created, scientists had already amassed an enormous body of knowledge about the Earth system, all of which had to be kept in mind while attempting to advance the frontiers further; an updated version of this diagram would look like a Mandelbrot set; the basics would remain the same, but within each box there would be a nested microcosm of equal complexity.

Francis wasn’t simply bright as in “thoughtful, insightful,” though he was both these things. He was also quick and vigorous in debate and, in fact somewhat inclined toward it (all signature-Cambridge traits, though it’s hard to determine whether Cambridge creates this attribute or simply attracts it…).

Proceed to positive energy and enthusiasm. Francis loved science and he loved people, and he brought those traits to every conversation with every person and every group. He could, and did, command the attention of the room, no matter how large or crowded. First there was his imposing physical stature. Then there was the shock of red hair. Then there was the penetrating gaze; in conversation, often rendered from inches away – not feet.

Then there was the voice.  Ah, the voice! We’ve all heard many speakers claim to not need a sound system – but Francis truly didn’t. His voice carried.

But what made the voice powerful, the time with Francis memorable, whether in big crowds or small, truly memorable was his vision, and his crisp, powerful exposition of big ideas. It was impossible to be with him, even in a crowd, and feel detached. Everyone within the sound of his voice would be fully engaged – a participant, a collaborator, not a bystander. For those few moments, we would actually all be a little brighter, a bit closer to the top of our game.

Which brings us to leadership style. When Francis was offered the NCAR/UCAR positions, some people wondered: why offer such a vital, pivotally important leadership role to anyone, no matter how bright, whose only previous management experience was in a faculty position at The Johns Hopkins University where he mentored no more than five or six graduate students at any given time? But Francis put that experience to work, to good effect. He simply ran NCAR/UCAR the same way. Only, now he had 500-600 “graduate students.” Four days a week he would walk around, assigning thesis topics to early-, mid-, and senior-level scientists alike (he was equal opportunity). Fridays he would do his own research. Somehow it worked. And worked well. Several generations of management later, it’s still easy to spot the Bretherton DNA across the activities and vibeof the place. The authority he carried there (and wherever he would later find himself) was always the power of his ideas, not his position on any organization chart.

The American Meteorological Society is indebted to Francis in many ways. One (very small) example: In 1976 the AMS was standing up a new STAC Committee, this one on Atmospheric and Oceanic Waves and Stability (today’s Committee on Atmospheric and Oceanic Fluid Dynamics).  Francis joined Owen Phillips and Jule Charney to get the first conference, held in Seattle, off to a good start. He delivered the keynote. Two hundred people showed up for the meeting, in large part to hear from the three of them. The committee and the AMS fluid dynamics community continue to be vibrant and active, almost fifty years later.

Now that’s what it means “to make the world a better place.” Thank you, Francis.

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Tooth, Tail, and Territory? Relationships among the three are as vital to innovation as they are to military conflict

[a great societal] â€œchallenge, a development problem, is the widening gap between advancing scientific knowledge and technology and society’s ability to capture and use them.” – The International Council for Science[1].

A fusion energy prototype: a prodigious innovation “tooth” indeed. We might wonder whether the corresponding innovation “tail” will prove adequate…

A year ago a friend, Ryan Baker, earned his doctorate at the George Washington University, defending a thesis entitled Logistics and Military Power: Tooth, Tail, and Territory in Conventional Military Conflict. I’m just now partway through the read.

Why bring this up? Let’s start with a quote from (now-Dr.) Baker’s abstract:

There is a broad consensus that logistics is a major determinant of the course and outcome of military conflicts, but very little work has rigorously explored when, how, or why it matters. This dissertation is an effort to close this gap. To do so, I develop a theory connecting the logistical capacity of military forces to a standard measure of military power: the ability to control territory in large-scale, conventional ground warfare. My central claim is that to seize and hold ground successfully depends on more than whether a military force has enough combat power (or “tooth”) to overcome its enemy on the battlefield, but also on whether that force has enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold its objectives—in other words, that logistical capacity is a necessary condition for territorial control.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that similar statements could be made about innovation: the process of scientific and technological advance, and the extension of such advance to sustained changes in the way society does business. If we want a brighter future, we can’t just focus on basic research. Consider this reformulation:

There is a broad consensus that logistics [or infrastructure] is a major determinant of the course and outcome of [innovation], but very little work has rigorously explored when, how, or why it matters. This dissertation is an effort to close this gap. To do so, I develop a theory connecting the logistical capacity of [would-be innovators] to a standard measure of [innovation]: the ability to [change society’s ways of doing business]. My central claim is that to [institute and sustain societal and technological change] successfully depends on more than whether [would-be innovators] ha[ve] enough [intellect, or genius, or cleverness] (or “tooth”) to [make such change], but also on whether [innovators have] enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold [these] objectives—in other words, that logistical capacity [or infrastructure] is a necessary condition for [sustaining change].

A bit ham-fisted, quick-and-dirty; readers could obviously improve on this with further wordsmithing. But you get the idea.

Back to Ryan’s thesis. His central claim is:

…that to seize and hold ground successfully depends on more than whether a military force has enough combat power (or “tooth”) to overcome its enemy on the battlefield, but also on whether that force has enough logistical capacity (or “tail”) to reach and hold its objectives—in other words, that logistical capacity is a necessary condition for territorial control. To show how logistical capacity and territorial control are linked together, I use the established logic of large-scale conventional ground combat and explain why military forces have to have at least some tail to control territory. I then show that the amount of tail that a force needs is determined primarily by three main variables: (1) how far away the objective is from where the force began, (2) how fast the tooth consumes resources, and (3) how fast the tooth moves relative to the tail. I conclude that a force cannot reach its territorial objectives without enough logistical capacity to meet the resupply requirements of its tooth over the distances implied by those objectives, and (for attackers) at the rate of advance necessary to get there.

Again, by analogy, researchers “at the cutting edge of science,” (the “tooth” metaphor fits comfortably here, doesn’t it?) need logistical support – laboratories, instruments, computing hardware and software, and above all, workforce and funding – not just to maintain their advance, but to scale it, and make research progress available to the larger population (that is, hold “territory” gained). What’s more, researchers, technologists, innovators need these essentials to ever greater degree (1) the more removed their envisioned world of future possibilities is from the constrained, resource-limited real world of the present, (2) the more rapid the pace of innovation, and (3) the wider the technological gap between where the would-be change agents are at any given moment and the host society’s ways-of-business-as-usual.

This past week brought this reality close to home. Three mini-symposia on weather and climate forecasting gave subject matter experts opportunity to provide input to NOAA and NOAA’s Science Advisory Board on research needs with respect to observations and data assimilation; forecasting, and information delivery. Speaker after speaker detailed myriad opportunities in these three areas to improve weather and climate forecasts and make them more accessible and valuable to a range of publics. But the progress and benefits were contingent. They’ll be available in the near term only if society augments investment in observing platforms and instrumentation; the computer hardware and code to digest more fully both existing and new sources of data; and in analyzing the ways people capture and use information. In other words, the nation needs to build a more-capable logistical tail for innovation.

It doesn’t stop there. Speakers noted that every aspect of this work will require harnessing machine learning/AI. To a person, they also noted with dismay the shortage of professionals at all levels equipped with the technical background and skills to work on the particulars; the interpersonal skills to work in teams and collaborate on the broader tasks; and leadership skills to manage the overall work and interface with users. Funding concerns were never far behind.

And remember – weather and climate change represent just one very small corner of the world’s innovation agenda. Minds are concentrating on similar challenges facing innovation with respect to:

  • Applying recombinant-RNA methods not just to covid vaccinations but across a broad spectrum of human ills;
  • human missions to Mars – 160 times more distant than the moon;
  • harnessing the elusive potential of plasma fusion for generating clean electrical power;
  • the development of quantum computing
  • the development of AI/machine learning and its broad application across the entirety of the national agenda;
  • automation
  • genetically-modified foods, and even the prospect of synthesized foods
  • desalination of water
  • (and countless other goals)

All this calls to mind the 2006 ICSU quote at the beginning of this post. The broad, and indeed ever-widening territory of innovation, and the widening gap between scientific advance and societal benefit should raise a red flag for scientists, for national and business leaders, and for the world as a whole.

The aim shouldn’t be to reduce the gap by slowing the pace of innovation. A happier set of outcomes are tantalizingly within reach. Political and business leaders could instead accelerate measures to reduce the gap and shorten the logistical tail by moving the societal end. At least three opportunities come to mind:

  • modernize American infrastructure
  • invest more in K-12 (and higher) public education, especially STEM education
  • broaden the inclusion, equity, and justice underpinning these efforts.


A closing note: We owe a great deal to the military for the development and application of science for human benefit here in the United States. Early U.S. scientific and engineering efforts included the Survey of the Coast, which has been tied to the military ever since its origins, and West Point, which played a significant role in the engineering of roads, bridges rail, and harbors; the forerunners of today’s critical infrastructure. Military expeditions – the Lewis-and-Clark and Zebulon Pike explorations of the Louisiana Purchase, Charles Wilkes’ exploration and survey of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands – contributed much to early US natural science.

Worth particular note here, the military has long paid attention to the logistical tail for its in-house R&D well before notions like application readiness levels began showing up explicitly in civilian research agencies. Early on, DoD established within its appropriations budget structure seven [sic] categories identified by a budget activity code (numbers 6.1-6.8) and a description. (Budget activity code 6.1 is for basic research; 6.2 is for applied research; 6.3 is for advanced technology development; 6.4 is for advanced component development and prototypes; 6.5 is for systems development and demonstration; 6.6 is for RDT&E management support; 6.7 is for operational system development; and 6.8 is for software and digital technology pilot programs.)

Think of these as vertebrae in innovation’s logistical tail.

[1]From a 2006 ICSU report on capacity building I referenced in a 2013 LOTRW post. The ICSU link you’ll find there apparently is no longer available online – a reminder of the fragility/perishability of web-based material and its limitations as an archival medium.

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Observing Hang-together Day – July 5

“We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin (on occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Independence)

The hot dogs, burgers, and potato salads, and ice cream have been consumed. So have the tall cool ones.  The echoes of the last fireworks no longer reverberate; the smoke-filled air has drifted away.  Independence Day has come and gone.

It is July 5th.

The new sun rises, revealing households and backyards that could stand a bit of cleanup. The litter from the celebration, the empty bottles and the paper plates cry out for collection and dumping in the bin. Here and there ashes from the barbecue and the fireworks ask to be swept away.

It’s Hang-Together Day.

The first Hang-Together Day also occurred in Philadelphia in 1776. Benjamin Franklin may have given us the memorable quote, but he was merely voicing a general awareness at the time. It was one thing to assert independence – it would be quite another to win and hold it. The last line of the Declaration carried the same somber realization:

 And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

The colonials knew that to succeed in their purpose, they would need each other as never before. They’d have to collaborate. Partner up. Be responsible. Be reliable. Be accountable. Success would require effort and sacrifice.

Viewed from today’s lens, our feelings for the majesty of the event are tempered by recognition of its shortcomings: All (white property-owning) men are created equal? What about women? People of color? The poor-and-property-less? Centuries in, we’re still struggling to confront and correct these inequities. Progress, if any, is intermittent. The wrongs persist. The disenfranchised see this with clarity; pale stale males, especially the wealthier ones, are complacent and complicit.

Yet to make lasting progress, to foster inclusion, build equity and justice, the challenge remains the same. We have to hang together. Collaborate. Partner up. Be reliable. Be accountable.

And IEJ is only the starting point. A raft of additional challenges call for us to hang together in July of 2021: holding the pandemic at bay, coping with climate change, educating the next generation, maintaining the integrity of democracy and the vote, reducing poverty, building national resilience both to natural hazards, modernizing our critical infrastructure (and maintaining our crumbling building stock); feel free to add your own top concerns.  As individuals, we can do little more than make a dent here and there across the list. Real progress requires a shared, unified vision, and large numbers pulling together in the hard, sustained grunt work on the ground.

All this might seem daunting, especially given the highly polarized, fractious society of today, but July 4th reminds us annually that we did it once. It also reminds us that unity need not be total, just considerable. Looking back, in 1815, former president John Adams estimated about one-third had favored the Revolutionary War at the time; another third were opposed, and the remaining third were undecided. (Since then, scholars have estimated between 40-45% of (again, white) colonials favored the war, 15-20% were opposed, with the rest undecided.). The population then was some 2.5 million; no more than 10% of this number were involved in combat throughout the five or so years of the fight; no more than 1% were actively engaged at any moment.

Whatever the numbers, and however much the notion of independence should be celebrated (and it should be!), a framing of July 5th as Hang-together Day (or Interdependence Day) might help sharpen thinking with respect to the present challenges.

How to proceed? Here’s a short list of ways we can learn to be incrementally more intentional about interdependence.

1. Simply hang together.

Two centuries of change have enriched and broadened the meaning of hang. Hanging with means to relax in the company of friends. Who do we hang with? A broad range of folks or a narrow spectrum of just-like-us? July 4th -5th could provide us an annual opportunity for self-examination: how might we expand our “hang-with” crowd… build relationship and trust with a more inclusive group? What call, or text, or simple greeting would be a good first step?

2. Add collaboration to our personal and professional collaborations.

Pick a work or personal activity in which you’re invested. Or identify one of the world or national challenges that matters most to you. Reflect on the inherently interdependent-nature of making progress, a contribution. Identify a personal step where collaboration with someone new in a new way would foster success. Take a first step to begin your follow-through.

3. Build a real awareness of all those around you.

Look at others attentively, with discernment. As each person enters your day, think for a moment: I’m dependent upon this person. Take a second moment to reflect: this person is counting on me in equal measure. Start with the easy ones: a life partner; co-workers. Then expand the circle. Someone you routinely or subconsciously view as having authority over you, or under your authority: your parents. Your children. The boss, not just a co-worker. One of your self-reports (if you have some). The faculty advisor; the dean. The freshman in your lab course. The intern. Then go further, to include strangers: the person next to you on the Metro or the street intersection. The clerk behind the counter. Or the customer at your counter. The crowd at the outdoor concert. The people you’re with for the one and only time in your respective transient lives. I’m dependent on this person. This person is counting on me in equal measure. Allow whatever time is needed to get in touch with the fully reciprocal nature of all relationships. None is one-sided. Don’t worry if the thought process seems too time consuming and stilted at first. It’ll rapidly start to go more quickly, become natural, reflexive even as it becomes more productive.

4. Be prepared to give up something to gain more.

The colonials pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. But they weren’t at all interested in sacrifice for its own sake. Quite the contrary. The colonials were all about gain. They wanted something more, something greater: the fullest measure of life, liberty, and happiness. And they recognized from the outset that it wasn’t coming free. That and similar challenges appear anew for every generation. We all get to think through what matters most to us and why, in some cases recommitting to aspirations we’ve held for as long as we can remember; in other cases pressing the reset button.

To this point, hanging-together has been viewed as equitable, but merely transactional. Hanging-together is seen as desirable primarily as a means to an end.

But there’s a deeper piece.

5. a firm reliance on Divine Providence?

It may well be that Jefferson and the other authors in congress in Philadelphia didn’t even think consciously about this language at the Declaration’s close. Maybe it was boilerplate, a mere rhetorical flourish. It may well grate on some present-day ears or offend sensibilities. But the Judeo-Christian faith those gathered largely shared went a step beyond what’s been discussed here so far.

According to that tradition, human life has inestimable value because we are all created in the image of God. To be aware of our mutual interdependence with each person we meet – what we stand to gain from them and what they stand to gain from us in equal measure – seems somehow less consequential than to realize that each person we meet expands our understanding of the full nature of God (or Divine Providence, or Higher Power). Hanging-together becomes of value not solely as a means to societal ends, but also as a beneficial societal end in and of itself. Love and forgiveness and commitment and hope are invited to enter the frame.

Enjoy your day!

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Policy nous: the superpower you use to harness your science to “the benefit of life.”

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”— Francis Bacon.

AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants standing in front of the U.S. Capitol Building
2019 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium participants

The 21st AMS Summer Policy Colloquium gets underway today. Some thirty early-career scientists and government meteorologists will gather (virtually, this year as last, thanks to the pandemic) for fourteen  zoom sessions from June 7-15. They’re following in the footsteps of more than 600 scientists who’ve participated in the program over the years.

Why have so many of our colleagues made this investment? Actually, the cost in time and attention is only the tip of the iceberg. The Colloquium is really no more than the portal, an invitation to a lifetime of risk and challenge calling for the utmost science talent; stupefying levels of effort sustained not for months but years; yes, and raw courage and even sacrificial love.

Participants come because they want to see their science benefit life (in Bacon’s words), and because they understand that the key to that outcome, at scale, is to align institutional and governmental  policies with reality – with physical realities, with social realities, and as Bacon noted, spiritual realities and values. They recognize they can play their part to the fullest only by becoming as disciplined in their approach to policy as they are to their science.

The Colloquium model is a simple one: it consists of conversation and invitation. The early-career participants meet with a roughly equal number of speakers over the period – speakers at different career stages, but who are generally a bit further down the road. Speakers share an appreciation for what policy is, how it can put science to work, what it’s like to labor in the policy world, and what that work can achieve. Participants are challenged and inspired. At the same time, participants are so full of potential and positive energy that speakers are renewed and refreshed by the encounter. They return to their labors with rekindled vigor. And they willingly return to meet with Colloquium participants year after year. Relationships are sown. Career trajectories and lives are changed. Science more effectively benefits life.

Somer Francis Bacon.jpg

Francis Bacon, though a flawed individual like the rest of us, embodied these ideals. He played a role in transforming science from the mere introspections of Empedocles, Aristotle, Galen, and the rest to the evidence-based, theoretically-sound work we know today. And politically he worked at the highest levels, serving as attorney general and Lord Chancellor of England. Read the Wikipedia biography, and you’ll find that in the end he may well have given his life in pursuit of his science.

And he understood that love, sacrificial love (captured in the Elizabethan word “charity”) was and remains at the root of it all.

He knew that love makes the world go round[1].

[1] Perhaps you might want to end your time with this post by hearing and seeing the Devon Jackson video of the popular song by the same name. Or maybe you would prefer a Jennifer-Lopez-Lin-Manuel lyric video on the same theme. Go for it!

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(Additional) reflections on geoengineering.

The recent NASEM report on geoengineering prompted some discussion yesterday on our daily AMS Policy Program call. One of my office mates made a couple of observations:

  1. Re “geo-engineering-has-always-been-with-us:” Bill, if that’s true, then in addition to looking at solar radiation engineering, we ought to focus on doing a better job of the geoengineering we’re already doing, rather than simply embarking on something new.

Well said! Start with energy.Worldwide, economies have invested trillions of dollars worldwide in fossil-fuel infrastructure, in the process modifying not just Earth’s atmosphere but also landscapes and ecosystems globally. We need to unwind that geo-engineering as we geo-engineer a renewable-energy planet to replace it. Then there’s food. As much as one-third of global agricultural output is wasted. In the developed world, this occurs at the consumer end; we prepare and serve too generously, and throw away a large amounts at meal’s end. In the developing world, fragile infrastructure too often fails to capture food production; as much as a third rots in farmer’s fields. Then there’s water; only a small fraction is consumed to meet direct human needs. Virtually all the water used worldwide supports agriculture, energy production, and the economy more broadly. We urbanize land that would have been ideal for agriculture – and compensate for that loss by irrigating desert. The list goes on…

Ideas for improvement abound; action is the bottleneck. Governments, institutions, and peoples would do well to be pursuing suc.h re-engineering with greater vigor.

Re “augment-funding-for-geo-engineering-research-without-reducing-the-funds-available-for-related-environmental-R&D:” Bill, we don’t have a good track record here. The incremental funding for new starts almost always comes at the expense of closely related work.

Again, spot-on. We can decry the reasons for this, starting here in the United States with the fragmented appropriations process in federal budgeting. Oversight/jurisdiction for budgets is parceled out; each focus are has its own set of priorities, and little enthusiasm or incentive to shift any of its resources to another portfolio, thereby signaling “we really didn’t need the money.” The only real hope in this case stems from the possibility of a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, potentially “the tide that will raise all boats.” The infrastructure legislation faces an uncertain future at best. Chances for truly new funding, even for amounts of $100-200M, are fragile.

A final reflection, this coming from another direction. The American Meteorological Society has a long-established process for community-development of informational and position statements on salient scientific, technological, and policy issues. Its statement on geoengineering was well-received and actually adopted by other scientific societies when first developed; as these things go, it’s also stood the test of time rather well, being readopted in 2013. But the world and geoengineering have moved on. Look for a new AMS statement on this subject a few months down the road.

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Reflection (and reflecting sunlight): part and parcel of humanity’s critical infrastructure.

Perhaps calling for reflection? (the Pinatubo eruption of 1991)

“The U.S. solar geoengineering research program should be all about helping society make more informed decisions.” – Christopher Field

Reflection is a uniquely human trait, or nearly so; some might say it is one of our species’ best and most endearing features. That said, our increasingly frenetic and networked 21st-century world has eroded opportunity for reflection and its close relative, contemplation. Take knowledge work of all kinds; today it seems somehow less thoughtful, even as the accelerating, relentless pace of tweeting, meeting, teaching, publishing have made the experience more athletic.

Our current season of pandemic and its enforced isolation has provided eight billion people time and incentive for a bit more reflection than usual. Unsurprisingly, given our dilemma, not all that reflection has been of the most positive sort. It’s been more focused on problems than opportunity.

We tend to see reflection as an individual matter, but groups and institutions can also be reflective. One such was in fact created for that very purpose: the National Academies for Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).  Chartered by Congress in 1863, initially to advise the nation on urgent scientific matters arising during the Civil War, NASEM has convened groups of scientists throughout the decades since for structured thought on opportunities for science, the implications of science for society, and the policies needed to foster innovation and its beneficial, responsible use.  

One of NASEM’s most recent studies lives up to this tradition: Reflecting Sunlight: Recommendations for Solar Geoengineering Research and Research Governance (2021).Even by the Academies’ high standards and historical record, the report marks an extraordinary accomplishment.

A bit of backstory. In 2015, NASEM produced two landmark studies on geoengineering: Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration, and a companion, Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth. At the time, committee members did a thorough job of explaining the science behind these two interventions. They called attention to the unique global stakes associated with such research and its application, emphasizing throughout the need for wise governance at individual, national, and international levels. But they stopped short of recommending specifics in this latter regard, citing its complexity and existential importance. They suggested their committees had not been adequately constituted to address such issues. They hinted at a sequel.

Reflecting Sunlight is the result, and looks to be well worth the wait. A strong group under the leadership of Chris Field details and updates current views of the needed research and development, but goes further, to develop and lay out thoughtfully and in a structured way the principles for governance of such work, at scientific, national, and international levels.

Attempting to reproduce any of the report’s findings here would fail to give the quality and sweep of the effort its due. But whether we are scientists, or policymakers, or concerned laity, Reflecting Sunlight deserves our reflection of the fuller sort, along several lines:

Geoengineering is not new. Solar geoengineering may be only recently arrived on the scene, but from the moment the first reflective species arrived on the planet, Earth could no longer remain “natural” in the sense it had been before. Geoengineering was a foregone conclusion. Agriculture, urbanization, and other altered landscapes and land use; irrigation, and other forms of water redistribution; extraction of ores and fossil fuels from the Earth’s surface and below – all this and more is in the realm of geoengineering. We live on a managed planet; the only choice available ahead is somewhere on the spectrum between effective and dysfunctional engineering.

Existential stakes. The difference is that geoengineering’s origins made a difference only locally or regionally. Today the scale is global. Eight billion of us, and the world’s natural ecosystems, share just one planet. The effects of climate change, already being felt, promise to be dire. Mitigation and adaptation measures are and ought to remain our primary means of coping, but evidence suggests their implementation may prove too little, too late. We urgently need a fuller characterization of the possibilities and limitations of solar geoengineering that might be applied as an emergency, stopgap measure to maintain the planet’s livability until mitigation and adaptation can fully kick in (in much the same way as, say, ICU staff use steroid therapies to stabilize seriously ill covid-19 patients until their own immune systems can take over).

Unique opportunity. The current administration and the Congress are mounting an ambitious critical infrastructure initiative. Encouragingly, this gives significant emphasis to coping with climate change, and to innovation. Hopefully, within the large budget numbers contemplated for science and technology, there will be room to accommodate the $100-200M over five years directed along the lines suggested in this report, while at the same time maintaining and even accelerating mainline climate-change mitigation and adaptation research. An ability to modulate solar reflection is in itself a form of critical infrastructure for the world of the future.

Hope.  The NASEM report doesn’t dwell on this, but hope is implicit throughout. The findings and recommendations lay out pathways to positive outcomes; at no point did the committee find an intractable barrier.

That leaves us with the governance challenge. The report explores in some detail the need for good governance. Lurking behind subjects such as registries, codes of conduct, data sharing, assessment, permitting, international collaboration, etc., etc., are lofty principles, including but by no means limited to notions such as: transparency, broad public and stakeholder participation, fairness, equity, trust, justice. As a species, we have a disappointing track record here. (Fact is, a critic could argue humans have displayed little more mastery of good governance than we have with respect to geoengineering itself.) To succeed, we have to embrace, to an extent we’ve been reluctant to do in the past, the idea that our futures are interdependent, that our self-interest is best realized – only realized – by giving primacy to the public good, the benefit of others.


A closing reflection. Maybe it’s the timing (this is a year that has seen a renaissance of awareness of systemic racism and other forms of inequity) but when it comes to basic human values, the equations of physical science and the findings of social science seem at best muted, if not entirely silent. We just might need to think outside that particular box. Something to ponder at the end to this Easter-Passover week. So start digging into Reflecting Sunlight. Lift a glass in the direction of Chris Field and his committee, thanking them for their hard work and clear-headed thinking. Reflect on the contribution you can make to the needed good governance as well as the science. In that reflection, you’ll be doing your bit to rebuild society’s most critical infrastructure. You’ll be building back better.

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The right kind of national conversation.

“Leaders spend 80% of their time on problems, and 20% of their time on opportunities. They should reverse that ratio.” [1]

The Pareto principle (or more informally, “the 80-20 rule”) has been around for a long time, though not always by that name. The theoretical foundation may be a bit thin (“80” and “20” hardly have the status of, say, Planck’s constant), but as a metaphor “the 80-20 rule” is easily remembered, intuitively understood, and sharpens thought. It therefore finds itself widely invoked in many contexts.

Which calls to mind current national concerns and discourse.

Systemic racism, inequality, and injustice. Election rules and the future of our democracy. Covid and its cost in devastated lives and economic disruption. Guns. Immigration. Climate change. The list is long…

Each test, by itself, challenges our ingenuity and energy, and frustrates efforts to develop consensus and work together. In aggregate, they seem overwhelming. Worse still, none can be ignored, put off until tomorrow. They all must be addressed – and simultaneously, and now. They also share a common property: they are problems.

Yet each contains seeds of opportunity (motivating the slight extension here to Pareto’s initially non-prescriptive observation).

Here’s an example, close to home. For years now, scientists have detected and decried signs of an apparent decline in the popular standing of science. In the United States, political leaders have called for draconian cuts in budgets for certain disciplines. Government scientists have seen their efforts to publish research stymied. Federal science advisory groups have been politicized. Court cases have attempted to walk back science-based regulation. Most egregiously, here in the United States, politics trumped science during much of the early approach to the pandemic. Reality, once considered the foundation of any kind of public dialog, today is all too often tossed aside. All this has been characterized by some scientists as active attack. Definitely a problem.

However, at the very same time, Americans are realizing that the country owes its unique standing in the world to more than its large geographic extent, wealth of natural resources, and the geopolitical protection provided by two oceans. What matters are the people: Americans have built a culture of innovation, advancing science and technology and their application to human benefit to a degree that has been the envy of the world.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of that world – that is, the remaining 96% of the world’s population – have taken note. Given their greater numbers, other nations are catching up. Sad to say, here in the United States, this has often been seen as yet another problem, meriting alarm. Some are calling for protectionist measures.

 Scientists, and most laypeople, see this as a losing strategy in the long run. Instead, they see in this global imitation an opportunity – to double down on investments in an institution that has been a powerful driver of U.S. innovation since World War II – the National Science Foundation.

In fact, not one but two proposals for strengthening NSF are currently on the table. The first dates back to the spring of 2020. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the so-called Endless Frontiers Act, which proposed renaming NSF the National Science and Technology Foundation, creating a new Technology Directorate within the agency, and providing additional funding totaling $100B over five years. (Details, worth the read, can be found here.) More recently, the House Science Committee has introduced a (similarly bipartisan) NSF-for-the-Future Act, adding a Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions to the agency with a recommended annual budget starting at $1 billion in fiscal year 2022 and growing to $5 billion over five years. The House bill recommends a doubling of NSF’s overall budget over five years. Significantly, it also shifts the focus from technology per se to societal challenges more broadly, including

  • Climate change and environmental sustainability
  • Global competitiveness in critical technologies
  • Cybersecurity
  • National security
  • STEM education and workforce
  • Social and economic inequality.

(More details, again worth the read, can be found here.)

Bipartisan. Creating opportunities, not just reacting to problems. Looking ahead, not into the rear-view mirror. Balancing technological facts and societal needs. What’s not to like?

Truly a national conversation worth having.


A closing note. The conversations, and fine tuning, and the hoped-for actual plus-ups in R&D investments are needed urgently. The United States contemplates trillion-dollar investments in U.S. infrastructure. Made strategically, accounting accurately for the impacts of environmental and societal trends underway throughout the infrastructure lifetime, such investments will provide Americans a rich return far exceeding the investment. But to fail to account for such factors, or to misjudge where climate and social trends are taking us because of inadequate environmental intelligence, will lead to waste and lower economic returns – losses we can ill afford. The sooner we answer some of the pressing questions embedded in the itemized list above, the better.

[1]I recall the quoted management principle as coming from the inimitable Peter Drucker, but couldn’t find Google support for that view just now, so have left it unattributed here.

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