Covid-19: both a threat today and a vaccine for tomorrow.

Covid-19: both a threat today and a vaccine for tomorrow.

Covid-19 is a threat that calls for a global vaccine “fix,” and yet, at the same time, the pandemic itself may be immunizing our world, better-equipping humanity to cope with greater risks on the horizon.

Let’s have a look.

First some context. By now, we all know all too well, and all too personally (more about this down the road) the basic facts. A new viral hazard is on the loose. Covid-19 is on the prowl worldwide. Pervading every nook and cranny of Earth’s eight-billion-person population, it’s bringing far too much severe illness, death, and associated pain and suffering in its wake. Hundreds of thousands have been infected; thousands have died

And those are only the ones we know about. 

That’s because statistics are limited to those who’ve been tested, and that testing has been, shall we say, “skimpy, incomplete” (choose your own, possibly pejorative adjective). Lacking more comprehensive data, humanity is flying blind.  Uncertainty is large. Mystery is everywhere. Why the special vulnerability of the elderly? Of males? Why have some nations been hit harder, earlier than others? What’s the right policy response? What’s the path forward to financial recovery? What are the chances of returning to the old normal? When might that occur? Answers aren’t coming. Covid-19 is not running a controlled experiment.

The good news? There is some. (Still sketchy) figures suggest the virus isn’t so deadly as some of its close SARS and MERS relatives.

The bad news? There are three pieces to this. To start, humanity lacks immunity, and covid-19 appears to be more deadly than the flu. Second, covid-19’s transmission and spread seem more rapid than that of its coronavirus antecedents. It was that high transmissivity that allowed it to escape the surveillance and public-health safety net provided by the World Health Organization and its national counterparts. Third, covid-19 has encountered a world far more globally connected economically than the world of even ten or twenty years ago (thanks especially to the increased importance of international supply chains, and the role of China in the world’s economy in particular). As a result, social-distancing countermeasures to slow the disease spread have triggered economic disruption running to trillions of dollars – a significant fraction of the world’s GDP. (Zero-inventory manufacturing models and hoarding have contributed to the woes.) Here in the United States, millions of men and women have been thrown out of work. Even the most extreme financial measures Congress has formulated as of this writing will by no means make the country whole. Business-as-usual? A rapidly fading memory.

Covid-19 and vaccines. Experts tell us that our current challenges with Covid-19 may ebb temporarily, should our current social distancing measures pay off, or should the coming warm season somehow suppress the virulence. But the history of human encounter with smallpox, the Black Death, and other plagues reminds us: just as large earthquakes are often followed by destructive aftershocks, epidemics also herald future recurrence. In recent days, experts have cautioned that our troubles will only truly begin to end when we succeed in developing a vaccine. Minds are active; individuals and firms are vigorously investigating multiple novel ways to accelerate the process. Let us hope and pray that one or more may work. But gauged by past experience – effective vaccines may be some 12-18 months away.

Covid-19 itself as a “vaccination?”But consider this possibility: even as we search for a vaccine, covid-19 may itself already be conferring on humanity some measure of protection against far greater harm – and in several ways. 

Before diving in, let’s recall the history and the general notion of vaccine. American school kids of my generation associate the idea with a particular person. We were taught that the Englishman Edward Jenner(1749-1823) was the father of vaccination. He’d known that milkmaids who’d had cowpox, a much milder disease, were immune to smallpox, and he’d managed to harness this to protect larger numbers of the population. The lessons learned fostered subsequent approaches to conquering several other diseases. 

As grade-schoolers, we weren’t taught all of the subtleties. For example, in Jenner’s time, smallpox epidemics were recurrent and killed perhaps 10% of rural Englanders and 20% of urban dwellers. (The influence of social distancing? Or the opposite, close social contact – with bovines?). Furthermore, protection against smallpox already existed. Jenner (and some others of his time) were already safeguarded by a riskier procedure known as variolation. From Wikipedia:

The procedure was most commonly carried out by inserting/rubbing powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from pustules into superficial scratches made in the skin. The patient would develop pustules identical to those caused by naturally occurring smallpox, usually producing a less severe disease than naturally acquired smallpox. Eventually, after about two to four weeks, these symptoms would subside, indicating successful recovery and immunity. The method was first used in China and the Middle East before it was introduced into England and North America in the 1720s in the face of some opposition.

Hmm. Jenner hadn’t acted alone. He’d built on an extensive foundation established by generations of scientists and practitioners before him, traceable back to others of quite different cultures a world away. Talk about the benefits of sustained, evidence-based science and its application. Talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

(Isolated at home for the period, you may have time on your hands. You can do worse than spend a few minutes of that chasing down other particulars of this narrative (perhaps starting with the two Wikipedia links here. Compare with the current unfolding story of Anthony Fauci and today’s global army of public health experts.)

More in the next post.

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AMS second-century countdown. One community.

Over the hundred-year lifetime of the American Meteorological Society, meteorologists and scientists in related disciplines spanning hydrology, oceanography, climatology, space weather and even a bit of social science have made great strides. With sustained national support – from both the Congress and the American people – they’ve greatly expanded basic knowledge and understanding. They’ve developed and deployed platforms and instruments of unprecedented diagnostic power for observing the Earth system. They’ve applied continuing advances in high-performance computing to prognosis – predicting from the novel observations what the Earth system will do next. Such progress has repaid the national investment many times over. Today’s forecasts support impact-based decision making across the entire national agenda. The resulting world is a safer, more prosperous, more sustainable place for all eight billion of us. 

This said, it could be that meteorology’s contribution over the period – its bigger gift to the larger world – is not any particular technological feat, but rather that it has built, and continues to operates in, community

To go further, it could be that community, rather than any specialized knowhow, is the fundamental starting point for solving any and all of humanity’s complex challenges – not just environmental issues but public health, poverty, national security and more. 

A bit of personal perspective as we dig a bit deeper. There are very few perks for being older (especially, we’re reminded, in this era of covid-19), but one of them has been the privilege of working for more than half of the AMS history, and experiencing that history on the ground.

Back in 1956, I was thirteen. My ninth-grade science textbook, which happened to deal with weather, started out with this line: “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.”

Sound familiar? The notion, in its broader outlines, is widely held. It’s even featured in LOTRW, both in the blog and the book (pp. 169-170). It’s directly influenced my study and career choices for more than 60 years. 

Why should that be? The idea is both imperfect and incomplete. Scientists themselves don’t always live up to the lofty standard. And scientists have no monopoly on community. Non-scientists can be and are in common cause. Close to home, not all employees of NOAA nor all members of AMS would consider themselves scientists[1]

The quote isn’t even that artfully expressed. The words community andcommonare in substance and tone a bit repetitive, redundant even. The quote lacks the important second bit covered in the previous LOTRW post– it makes no acknowledgment of any common purpose for that common search, namely, the benefit of life.

But for all these clear flaws, the aphorism highlights the idea of community – of a oneness and a sense of in-it-together. In the mid-1960’s, when I was a graduate student in physics at the University of Chicago, any such spirit was obscured by competition, stress, and insecurity rampant in the lab and the classroom. In the search for something better, I found myself transferring (not out of any exceptionally thoughtful or systematic process) across campus to the Department of Geophysical Sciences.

And stumbled into a different culture. Dave Fultz was conducting rotating dishpan experiments in his rats’ nest of a basement lab. Roscoe Braham’s graduate students were bumping around in the tail of research aircraft collecting in situ cloud-drop and ice crystal samples. Ted Fujita was chasing tornadoes around the country, gathering proxy data – patterns of fallen trees, the trajectories of windblown debris, which way the laundry had been blowing in back yards (okay, maybe not that last one) – to build his understanding of tornadogenesis. Hsiao-Lan Kuo and George Platzman were squeezing the Navier-Stokes equations to make them sing. Lines separating faculty from students were blurred. Nobody fully understood how anything-geo worked; unsolved problems were everywhere. Nobody was going to get rich. Nobody was chasing a Nobel Prize. The whole weather crowd was consorting with geophysicists, vulcanologists, paleobiologists.  

A lot has changed over the past half-century. Meteorology (and the Earth sciences generally) has grown up. The journals and their content have proliferated. The private sector is active, growing, and morphing right before our eyes. But the sense of community has remained. It was on full display Wednesday evening, January 15, 2020, at the climax of this year’s Annual AMS Meeting in Boston. A record number of attendees thronged across the venue, enjoying the music, the food – and each other’s company. And that company was diverse, with respect to gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., but also embracing instrument builders, numerical modelers, physical scientists, social scientists, operational forecasters, corporate exhibiters, users of services and data equally. And that’s before we get to country of origin – the crowd was international. Any such group breaks into clusters, but these were clusters, not cliques. The smaller groups were similarly diverse, and shifting and changing in a wonderfully dynamic and fluid way all evening.

Bottom line? Even as meteorology (broadly described) has expanded and matured, as the players have multiplied, the personal and institutional stakes have risen and “self-interest” has become more textured, an overlay of common purpose – a safer, more productive, more sustainable world – has remained paramount. In part that’s inherent in the subject matter. Unlike a proton or chemical compound or strand of DNA that can be studied in any isolated laboratory, the Earth’s atmosphere is of a single piece, and yields its secrets only to global collaboration. Meteorologists (again broadly described) are cooperative either because their psychologies are shaped by the demands of the profession, or because only the more cooperative by nature self-select and enter the field.

Which brings us back to the idea that it is the AMS community as well as any technical prowess that might be our most important gift to the world. 

The idea offers both encouragement and caution. To see this, let’s consider the example of climate change. The challenge it poses is dire. The stakes are existential. A world polarized by especially by differences in wealth and circumstance that were once hidden but now laid bare by today’s social media, is deeply divided. Scientists see the urgency and the ways in which delay and failure to face and deal with the problems are foreclosing on the better global options and outcomes. The temptation is to see the issue as a battle and to think it necessary to force through policies nationally and worldwide by capturing momentary political advantage – any relationship building must take a back seat until we get sustainable policies locked into place.

This approach “works,” but victory sometimes comes at a terrible cost. To illustrate:  the Affordable Healthcare Act has provided access to medical attention for many previously uninsured, including millions of children. But the process by which it was achieved has built up lasting and corrosive political antibodies – captured in the more common name, Obamacare.

So perhaps we might more effectively deal with climate change the other way around. We might first build what is sometimes described as a bridge of trust that can support the weight of truth. By doing our part to establish common ground with all of society, rather than scolding or preaching to any part of it, we can arguably enhance prospects for solving not only climate change, but many other societal ills as well. 

Our own community is our best selling point for this. If and when people look at us, they see community, they’ll feel comfortable buying in – perhaps even eager to do so. They may feel more disposed to look for communal approaches to other global and national problems – to walk back some of the barrier-building that has crept into our world. If instead they see a mirror of the larger society’s larger divisiveness, dysfunction, and factionalism, they’ll want no part of the climate solutions we have on offer.

Community: the greatest asset of the AMS and the larger set of professionals in which we’re embedded.


[1](In fact, the label scientist can itself be polarizing; hence the LOTRW preference for the more general idea of realism and living on the real world – not the world we imagine or wished existed but the world as it actually is. We don’t all see ourselves as scientists. But embracing the importance of realistic thinking and action? That unites us.)

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AMS second-century countdown. Two great purposes.

“The American Meteorological Society advances the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.” the AMS Mission

The AMS logo (above) may have an entirely new look heading into the second century, but the AMS mission remains unchanged.

That ought to be reason for cheer. 

Why? Because, from its 1919 inception, the AMS has been addressing two crucial questions:

  • What is the nature of our world and how does it work?
  • How can we improve on our world – how can we make life on Earth better?

It’s important to understand that these are existential human questions; they’re not mere meteorological preoccupations. The stakeholders number nearly eight billion – not just a small handful who might self-identify as meteorological experts.

Let’s take a look.

What is the nature of our world and how does it work? We’re told that the apostle Paul, in his travels across southern Europe in the first century A.D., spoke to Athenians about the nature of God thusly: “In Him we live and breathe and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28). He was, of course, referring to God as he understood him, but at the same time he was speaking to the Athenians in language they knew well. To their ears, Paul was also channeling the semi-mythical 7th-6th-century B.C. Cretan philosopher Epiminedes, who had made a similar such reference to Zeus. Everyone at the Areopagus that day caught Paul’s drift.

In today’s lights, putting matters of faith aside, most of us would agree that in the Earth’s atmosphere itself we all live and breathe and have our being. It’s easy to take this atmosphere for granted, to assume that each breath will always be safe, life-sustaining, satisfying. Few of us live (for very long) in any degree of suspense about this. Breathable air is the most fundamental of our needs. By comparison, desire for food and water can wait. (Don’t look for air in the Wikipedia link on Maslowe’s hierarchy of needs, which speaks to this; it’s buried in the much classier term homeostasis.) 

And that air can act up. When it blows – hard – as did the recent Nashville tornado, it causes death and destruction. Heavy rain or snow? Corresponding impact. What’s worse, extremes of flood and dry spells can coexist/interweave; Melbourne and Sydney have been pounded by tropical storm Esther, just weeks after the end of drought-induced Australian wildfires. And when the air turns bad – it can shorten lives worldwide. A recent estimate suggests air pollution drives a global excess mortality of more than 8m lives/year – a reduction of life expectancy of almost three years, due to such causes. That’s before we get to airborne disease – a virus, say. These days we know too well the disruption that can trigger.

To improve our understanding – especially our predictive understanding – of all this? Not just an intellectual and technological challenge for a few experts, but hugely consequential for the human prospect. It’s the vital starting point for the second question:

How can we improve on our world – how can we make life on Earth betterTo the extent we know what the atmosphere will do next,we can exploit this understanding for great human ends. We can harness the energy of the wind, ocean currents, and the sun. We can improve agricultural productivity and feed eight billion hungry beings. We can use water more efficiently. In these ways we accommodate other needs also near the base of Maslow’s pyramid (LOTRW: the value of Earth observations, science, and services: about to skyrocket). Meeting needs for natural resources; building resilience to nature’s extremes and making lives safer; maintaining and improving upon air and water quality – all this allows the majority of the world’s peoples to turn their attention to innovation in countless ways – in science and engineering, in commerce of every kind, improving health and education, and extending to the arts and humanities. Bottom line? Knowing what the atmosphere will do next not only makes life possible, it enriches life and makes it meaningful. (Using Maslow’s language, we can self-actualize.)

But take a closer look at the question: what will the atmosphere do next? It turns out for a world of eight billion people in a highly developed global economy, next can extend to some rather long time scales. Even our nomadic, hunter-gatherer forbearers needed to know not just weather at the moment (which direction is downwind from the game we’re tracking? Do we need to seek immediate shelter?) but also information about seasons (is it time for us to pull up stakes, to move the clan/tribe along to another location altogether?). Of course, early humankind grew frustrated with the fickle nature of the atmosphere. As soon as they were able, our ancestors exchanged hunter-gathering for agriculture, urbanization, and the development of trade and, ultimately, industry. In the same manner they traded dependence on wind- and water for power in favor of fossil fuel use. In today’s society, with its large investment in and dependence moment-by-moment on fixed critical infrastructure with design lifetimes of decades, climate variability and change over those time frames start to matter. 

Meteorologists struggled to keep pace, but after decades of hard work we now know that our future climate circumstance looks dire, thanks to the most recent century or so of that same fossil fuel use. 

To conclude – those two questions remain crucial, not just for the human race but for all of life on Earth:

  • What is the nature of our world and how does it work?
  • How can we improve on our world – how can we make life on Earth better?

even as the ground under our feet has shifted. Our capacity to address these questions has never been greater, while ever-better capabilities are coming on-line. Oh – and our work has never mattered more.

What a great moment in world history to be alive! What a great moment to be a meteorologist, and an AMS member!

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AMS second-century countdown. Three threefold problems to be solved simultaneously.

Analysis breaks down a whole into its constituent parts. Synthesis combines distinct elements or components to build a coherent whole.

(To oversimplify greatly) The AMS’ first century, just celebrated, has been a triumph – of analysis. Over that hundred-year span, meteorology, hydrology, and climatology were identified and explored as three separable though related fields of study (in today’s vernacular, each became “a thing”).  Scientists and engineers further picked apart these three subjects, delving into the disaggregated set of disciplines and technologies that go into understanding and making distinct predictions with respect to each. Others applied these advances, to improve agriculture, energy and water use; to build resilience to hazards; to protect the environment and ecosystems. Three distinct societal sectors – governments, private-sector corporations, and the academy[1] – each developed and played individual roles.

Remarkable! But all this is dwarfed by the second-century challenge that now confronts us, demanding that we reassemble all these pieces, accomplishing multiple levels of synthesis:

1. Simultaneously, holistically addressing the resource-, resilience-, and environmental dimensions to successful living on the real world.

Today the relationship of seven-going-on-eight billion people with the planet we live on is severely strained. Our consumption of resources – food, water, and energy particularly – pushes the limits of what Earth is able to provide. The creation of large pockets of poverty has combined with urbanization and the emergence of critical infrastructure to produce new and growing vulnerabilities to natural hazards. Signs of environmental degradation and the decline of ecosystem services are everywhere – starting with climate change per se but extending to reduction in biodiversity and habitat, acidification of the oceans, ubiquitous increases in plastic waste, and more.

For most of human experience, the first two dimensions were taken for granted. Earth’s bounty seemed limitless. Hazards were acts of God. Environmental degradation was confined to a handful of locations, but otherwise ignored. What’s more, for most of the 20th century, the three challenges could be usefully considered in isolation. Now it’s apparent that the three challenges must be addressed simultaneously in the manner of simultaneously solving three equations in three unknowns familiar from algebra. What’s more, it’s apparent no once-for-all-time solution exists. Sustainability, if viewed in static terms, is an oxymoron. In reality, the world’s peoples can at best buy time, through continuous innovation[2].

2. Reintegrating the study of weather, water, and climate.

The natural Earth system operates refreshingly free of any artificial boundaries imposed by language and labels. Every atmospheric molecule, every drop of water, each speck of dust or bit of rock merely responds, insensately, instant by instant, to the forces acting on it. Such actions, when aggregated, reveal emergent properties such as gusts of wind, hurricanes, cycles of flood and drought, river formation and flows, ocean circulations, tides, and climate variability.

For most of the past century – the lifetime of the AMS – the larger world has accepted the artificial separation of Earth system processes into three distinct categories –  meteorological, hydrological, and climatological.  

The social contract between nations, corporations and publics on the one hand and scientists expert in these fields? Society has provided minimal resources for related predictive services provided along these three lines. In turn, societal expectations and needs were correspondingly low. Over millennia, the world had developed and refined muddle-through strategies that governed agriculture, energy, water-resource management, and emergency response to hazards that acknowledged and accommodated the limitations of such predictions. Any contributions meteorologists, hydrologists, and climatologists made over the past 100 years have been welcomed, but treated reservedly.

Today, by contrast, an increasingly anxious world is seeing rising global temperatures, accompanied by more intense cycles of flood and drought. Coastal populations, some 40% of the world’s total, are threatened by sea-level rise and near-shore subsidence and coastal deterioration related to extraction of resources covering the gamut from oil to sand.  Peoples and their leaders alternately beg and demand that Earth scientists do more to solve each of three forecast problems simultaneously – often over quite localized regions, and across time scales spanning minutes to centuries. Progress can’t be made fast enough, and yet needs are surfacing just as the urgency of the problems constrains the financial resources available for improvement. The gap between the predictive skill needed and what’s available is particularly conspicuous at time scales between a few weeks and a season or two.

3. Blurring the bright lines that had separated governments, industry, and universities in order to accelerate progress on complex, existential problems.

Earth observations, science, and services provide only one example of a much larger 21st-century challenge, but retaining the focus: for much of the past half-century, government environmental agencies have relied on the corporate world to build the instruments and platforms needed to observe the Earth and its atmosphere and oceans. Governments have owned the platforms and instruments, once built, as well as the data. Governments have done any necessary numerical modeling, while relying heavily on other corporations in the private sector to disseminate forecasts, especially over the “last mile” into individual homes and other users. Academics, meanwhile, were supplying needed innovation. (Of course these were mere stereotypes. The reality was never this black and white. NASA, NOAA, USGS, DoE national labs, the Agricultural Research Service, DoD, EPA and other government agencies were doing cutting-edge research. NOAA Weather Radio and government websites were also providing information directly to end users.) But in recent years, the private sector has made inroads into owning and selling data and holds aspirations to do more. Academics are vigorously incubating new companies. Numerical predictions are now being accomplished by private companies and by private-academic partnerships. Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and other cutting-edge technologies promise further disruption. The challenge is to channel, even unify, these three streams of energy and innovation into constructive societal outcomes versus something less.

To sum up? We face a triad of problems, each demanding integration of threesomes of hitherto distinct entities, with the triad itself demanding similar integration – all against a ticking clock.

That calls to mind a triad of possible endings for this post:

  1. What could go wrong?
  2. We’ve got this.
  3. No pressure!

Or, you could choose, personalize your preferred ending…perhaps, in the spirit of the post, perhaps integrate the three, into something anagrammatic like:

No pressure. We’ve got this wrong! What could go?

Think about it.


[1] With a bit of catalytic help from a smaller human construct, one that punches above its weight – namely what is sometimes referred to as civil society – including NGO’s such as the AMS itself.

[2] The literature on all this is voluminous; a readable summary can be found here.

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AMS second-century countdown. Four who deserve our thanks.

The previous LOTRW post singled out Bill Gail (and his entire Centennial Committee and their extended network) for all their work in getting us to this 2020-moment. But AMS-member-gratitude shouldn’t stop there. We should also express our thanks to the four AMS executive directors over this time span who helped us reach this milestone and who continue to move the community forward. A word on each (not by any means a full listing of their accomplishments or contributions):

Ken Spengler (AMS executive director from 1946-1988; died 2010). The first executive director. He presided over a membership that grew from 2000 to 10,000 over the period. In 1958 he purchased what is now AMS headquarters at 45 Beacon Street. He later negotiated the 1974 transfer to AMS of publication of the prestigious journal Monthly Weather Review, established in 1872 by the United States Army Signal Corps, the predecessor of today’s National Weather Service.

Richard Hallgren (1988-1999). As director of the National Weather Service over the decade prior, Dick Hallgren had led a substantial Modernization and Restructuring. As executive director of the American Meteorological Society he repeated the feat. He added Interactive Information Processing sessions to the stable of conferences and symposia that made up the AMS Annual Meetings. At the same time, he grew the Meeting Exhibits, bringing in the corporations building weather radars and satellites and AWIPS. He established an international workshop that brought WMO leaders and heads of weather and hydrometeorological services worldwide to the Annual Meetings. He superintended the AMS 75thanniversary campaign. The synergies from all these measures led to the rapid growth of AMS meetings in terms of numbers of participants, papers presented, and revenues. He also established the AMS Education program. 

Ronald McPherson (1999-2004). As executive director, Ron McPherson established the AMS Policy Program, and initiated the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium, modeled loosely after the NCAR Summer Colloquium. He worked with Keith Seitter to streamline the publications process. He also expanded the offerings of the Education Program, developed the concept of the broadcast meteorologist as a “station scientist,” and broadened the participation of the private sector across the whole of the AMS. He embarked AMS on the process of preparing transition documents every four years for incoming administrations.

Keith Seitter (2004- present). As head of AMS publications for a decade prior, and subsequently as executive director, Keith Seitter has navigated a relatively smooth, profitable course for AMS journals – this over two turbulent decades ushered in with electronic publishing and continuing to the present day with the trend to open access. (Other scientific and professional societies have experienced far more dollar loss and disruption over the period.) He oversaw the addition of social science and policy sessions to AMS Annual Meetings beginning in 2006 and in 2009 founded the new journal Weather, Climate and Society, providing essential infrastructure for integrating social sciences with meteorological research and services. Continuing Ron McPherson’s work, he supervised major changes to AMS organizational and meeting structure to facilitate greater dialog and more effective collaboration among the public-, private-, and academic sectors of what is now called collectively the Enterprise, as called for by the National Academy’s 2003 Fair Weather report. He laid important groundwork for the nascent International Forum of Meteorological Societies. He’s fostered robust member engagement in the day-to-day work of the Society as well as the development of new initiatives and otherwise repositioning AMS for the second century. He’s developed key collaborations with the American Institute of Physics and the American geosciences Institute.

Whew! A lot of work, and still continuing. The four couldn’t be more different, but they share(d) a common version to the spotlight. All would be quick to redirect any thanks and credit to their staff and the larger AMS membership. Nevertheless…

Thanks to all four of you!

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AMS second-century countdown. Five new starts

No, it’s not Charles Franklin Brooks. It’s Bill Gail. When you see him, thank him.

The American Meteorological Society’s 2020 Annual Meeting– our 100th– is underway. A record number of attendees – more than 5000 – are gathering in Boston for the occasion. But the Centennial itself is the tip of the iceberg. Years of planning and hard work involving hundreds of member-volunteers have reexamined and rebuilt virtually every facet of AMS as we enter the second century. 

Here’s a metaphor for that work, channeling Ed Lorenz’ butterfly:

Imagine a caterpillar contemplating its goals, aspirations, future relevance and role. If AMS limits its perspective to “become a larger-yet-speedier-and-more-agile caterpillar,” history and events in our 21st-century world of rapid technological advance and social change will pass us by. But if we envision and fully embrace the notion of “butterfly,” we can change the course of the world – with respect to resource use and management, resilience to hazards, and environmental protection. Even more fundamentally, we can help reshape the world’s social contract – humanity’s shared sense of and commitment to common purpose, trust, and unity.

This and the next few posts unpack that. 

We start with a few things that remain unchanged. Caterpillar and butterfly share the same DNA. In the same manner, as the AMS enters its second century, it remains committed to:

  • Advancing the atmospheric, water, and climate and related fields in the service of society – fostering breakthrough science, technology innovation, and applications – through meetings, publications, certifications, scholarships, education, chapters, awards, and policy. We’re continuously taking a fresh look at publications and meetings to ensure AMS leads the means by which scientific and professional information is created and established. 
  • We’re sharpening our priority on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; we’re committed to reflecting the breadth of backgrounds, capabilities, and needs of our members and our society in all we do. 
  • We’re maintaining our aspiration to serve the global public, using new means to impact those we serve with our knowledge and capabilities, from applied uses to education to policy and more.

But in addition, we’ll be extending our reach, in five particular respects. We owe the identification and articulation of these to the multi-year efforts of a Centennial Committee and many collaborators. That said, we owe a particular thanks to Bill Gail, who as AMS President saw the need for such a multi-person, multi-year, encompassing and far-reaching effort. It would have been easy for him to suggest someone else take on such a big multi-year responsibility. Instead he shouldered it himself. A forecast: decades from now, when AMS members of the time look back, they’ll likely see Bill’s role as approaching the impact of Charles Franklin Brooks, one of the AMS founders.

Here are the five (the language essentially verbatim from internal AMS reports):

Career enhancement & advancement. A key benefit of membership in a professional society is access to knowledge and opportunities for learning and networking. Collectively, these are key assets to advance and enhance an individual’s career. As it enters its second century, the AMS must focus on strengthening its value proposition to members. It should recognize that more atmospheric and related jobs are now in the private sector, and sometimes in industries that are not typically active in the AMS. This support should extend through a member’s professional journey from their academic years to their work years to retirement years. To catalyze positive outcomes for its members, the AMS will need to facilitate an entrepreneurial spirit from businesses and governments. The AMS should also renew and extend its partnerships with academic institutions, other professional societies, and the industry, whilst encouraging an agile mindset of lifelong learning from its members.

Local-collaboration networks. To borrow a common phrase, “all impact is local.” Weather impacts, education, and policy issues are often discussed and addressed locally. In its second century, AMS recognizes that one way to greatly grow its impact is by emphasizing local activities. Fortunately, AMS has access to a wide range of local organizations to accomplish this. As shown in the figure below, these assets start with AMS local chapters but encompass universities, NWS offices, broadcasters, companies, high schools, active retirees, and more. We know that these organizations would like better means to share information and collaborate. Effective local networking brings substantial benefit to each organization; in doing so, it expands AMS impact, builds valuefor AMS members, and potentially grows membership.

Member-volunteer portal. The AMS Volunteering Program (AMSVP) is a proposed new, society initiative that would offer opportunities for AMS members to apply their expertise and knowledge to the solution and mitigation of serious problems that confront worldwide communities and populations. The purpose of the AMSVP is to promote opportunities for AMS members to make their expertise and experience available to non-profit and academic organizations worldwide and to facilitate service for the greater good.

Partner-Organization Web. Expanded partnering helps AMS leverage its resources and grow its impact through organizational collaboration. The goal of the Centennial’s Expanded Partnering initiative is to build AMS’s partnering capacity in two ways:

• Greatly amplify the depth of collaboration possible with AMS’ core partnerships;

• Significantly grow the number of partner organizations

AMS can effectively interact with at all levels of collaboration, leveraging technology to accomplish this efficiently. AMS benefits from the collaborations, and from its international leadership in building the underlying platform technology.

Historical Research Network. The AMS Historical Research Network (HRN), coordinated by AMS, is a virtual and scalable network of historical information and resources linking multiple institutions that bridge the historical and meteorological communities. AMS-HRN provides crucial and socially relevant linkages between our first and second centuries and between the past, present and future of the meteorological enterprise. History is an important shared interest among the membership, from new students to retirees. The HRN will coordinate its work with other Centennial Initiatives including Lifetime Career Enhancement, Local Collaboration Networks, the Member Volunteer Portal, the Partner Organization Web, and related initiatives. The HRN supports diverse historical projects of interest to the weather, water, climate, and atmospheric chemistry community. We proactively support projects that document and interpret the contributions of women and minorities. We also aim to identify issues of social relevance, preserve the historical record, and coordinate with educational and public outreach programs to reach new generations.

The good news? AMS members will benefit from these initiatives for years to come. The even better news? By volunteering, engaging, you can shape these initiatives, improve upon them, bring them to life and sustain them.

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Open access journals. Part 4.

Google the phrase “the war on science” and a host of links pop up immediately.

Scientists might be forgiven for occasionally feeling beset. But the fact is, there isn’t really a war focused on science. Scientists, technologists, innovators, thus far, are held in generally high regard and tend to prosper worldwide. It’s more accurate to say that scientists are merely collateral damage in a contest so extreme that it feels like war – at least to those of us first-worlders who’ve never had to suffer the real thing personally.

It’s a noisy, clamorous, often vicious competition for attention, for eyeballs, on news and social media. And in this “war,” like real wars, truth is often a casualty. The progression might be summed up this way:

  • stick to the facts
  • supplement the facts with facts-based commentary around the edges, designed to stimulate thought
  • highlight existing uncertainties in the facts
  • actively, deliberately enhance that uncertainty, create uncertainty
  • triumphantly announce, through multiple media outlets, some compliant, others hacked, that black is white[1].

Today, people can get paid for this – in proportion to how far they can work through such progressions, on behalf of politicians and countries, corporations, etc. 

As argued in the previous three LOTRW posts, science is discovering that the protection and life-giving foundation that historically has been protected by peer-reviewed journals may no longer be adequate in the face of this “war.” A metaphor from our field: ocean acidification resulting from fossil fuel use (read “the rise of fake news”) affects marine organisms – ranging from coral and oysters to phyto- and zooplankton) that build their shells and skeletons from calcium carbonate (read “science dependence on journals”).

A cautionary tale comes to mind:

The tower of Babel[2].

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”– Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV)

We all know this story. Interpretations of this tale and variants make for interesting reading. By some views, the story is basically an attempt to account for the diversity of the world’s languages. According to other accounts that add an overlay of the tower collapse, it is a condemnation of human tendency to pride and overreach.

How might a storyteller update the tale to make it relevant to today? What could keep the world’s peoples from realizing our fullest potential? 

Well, it likely could no longer do to center on language per se. Over the millennia, humanity has worked out how to live with multiple languages. And, fact is, the diversity of languages is decreasing. Some, spoken by only a few are dying out as their speakers are absorbed into larger ethnic groups. The now-globalized world tends to have common words for new products, ideas, and technologies. 

In any event, we are so confident on this point that one popular language training tool has cloaked itself in the name: Babbel

Today’s analogous risk? Our society will become so captivated by spin that we allow the reality-based innovation that has brought humankind this far to unravel. One therapy that needs to be applied to society broadly is a widespread K-12 educational effort to help children discover, develop skill at, and enjoy critical thinking. In the meantime, certain institutions, like science and the journals they require, need to be protected.


[1]Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway captured this in their 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt.

[2]A tip of the hat to reader J.M. Hiatt for bringing this to mind.

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Open access journals. Part 3.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”– Exodus 20:16 KJV

“In war the first casualty is the truth.”– attributed variously, in slightly different forms.

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”– Winston Churchill

In Knives Out, a very popular mystery film currently making the rounds in theaters, one of the pivotal characters – the nurse, Marta – cannot lie without vomiting. 

It’s not clear that any real person, living or dead, has ever been so endowed (or afflicted) with this gift (or curse). In fact, the Ninth Commandment hints that our proclivity to shade the truth or lie outright when convenient is essentially universal, and age-old. Truth has therefore always been under siege.

But modern-day information technology, and the accompanying explosion in the influence and reach of social media, have combined to transform the vulnerability of truth, in new ways that threaten its continued existence. In the past, truth might often simply fail to see the light of day – snuffed out by darkness. Today truth is instead often overwhelmed by the glare of competing half-truths and utter falsehoods. Fake news, which might once have been considered an oxymoron, has become an actual thing – even earning its own Wikipedia entry. The power of IT-fueled social media can and does often pose an existential threat to hitherto generally-accepted truths or reality.

Which brings us to open-access journals. Current enthusiasm for making scientific journals open-access, because “information wants to be free,” fails to acknowledge information’s frailty in a post-truth world. To be accredited, to be verified, to be safeguarded so that it can endure, truth has always required help. Historically, peer-reviewed journals, whether published by science societies or by for-profit publishers, have (just barely) managed the task. But now, information gatherers have grown in numbers and the growth of knowledge has picked up speed – outstripping the ability of peer review to establish priority, verify data and logic, and distinguish between the new and what was already known, between what is truly novel and important, and what is merely incremental or repackaging. And that’s before we get to the tasks of protecting data and knowledge over extended periods of time from cyber attacks and distortion. 

Turns out, the (only partially) tongue-in-cheek Churchill quote is closer to the actuality. Information doesn’t want to be free. It wants to be protected. It’s the lies that want to be free. 

And in today’s world, and going forward, information will only be protected at increasing cost.

Who should bear that cost? Society can’t afford to put it willy-nilly on the backs of charitable donors and foundations. However well-meaning, such individuals and institutions can at best provide only intermittent, short-term, low-levels of attention and funds. Governments must find ways to step up to the responsibility.

Postscript: Science societies, facing demands for open-access, are today thrust in the position of J.R. Spradley’s mule:

J.R. Spradley, a NOAA political official from the Reagan days, once said in a similar situation he was reminded of a mule they had down on the farm. The mule was a terrific worker, helped them get everything done, but ate too much. They began to train the mule to do more and more work around the farm on less food…but just when they’d succeeded… when they’d gotten the mule to work all day for no food at all, it went and died on ‘em.

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Open access journals. Part 2.

“ceiiinosssttuv” –Robert Hooke (1676)

“I was country when country wasn’t cool.”– Barbara Mandrell (1990)

When the peerless Isaac Newton and his contemporary Robert Hooke[1]walked the earth, natural philosophers were few and far between. The pace of discovery and change was relatively slow. Fact is, the term “scientist” wouldn’t supplant “natural philosopher”for more than another 100 years. (When it did, the label would first be applied to a woman – the remarkable Scottish science writer and polymath, Mary Somerville– who died at the age of 91, almost exactly 150 years ago.)

During Newton’s time, the oldest national science institution in the world, Britain’s Royal Society, formerly the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, was established in 1660. (A reminder, that by some lights, the American Meteorological Society, at age 100, might be considered a relative newbie.) The institution was the outgrowth of a more informal group established some fifteen years earlier by Robert Boyle (claimed – and acclaimed– as a chemist by most, though some in our community also see him as a proto-meteorologist). 

The Royal Society’s formation occurred in several stages. Under Boyle’s leadership, the original group met weekly and conducted experiments. Royal approval and a formal charter were granted in 1662. A second royal charter, using the historic name, followed in 1663. In November of that same year Robert Hooke was appointed Curator of Experiments. Member scientists recognized early that a journal was a critical need. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was cranked up about 1665, and is credited with being the first journal in the world devoted exclusively to science, and therefore also the world’s oldest and longest-running science journal.

The Wikipedia article suggests that the familiar functions of the scientific journal – registration (date stamping and provenance), certification (peer review), dissemination and archiving − were introduced at [Phil. Transactions’] inception.

To expand a bit, scientific journals have provided means for researchers to share progress as they go along. But journals have also been, and continue to be, asked to accomplish much more. Journals are used to establish priority (who published first?). Journal peer review is supposed to assess worth (validity, novelty, scope and breadth of implications, etc.). Peer review is also to bring to light and thereby limit data falsification, manipulation, and plagiarism[2]. Historically, journals have helped the science community provide a measure of transparency and reproducibility. Then there is curation. Once a paper has been accepted, journals make the work and the foundational data and metadata accessible – and inviolate – not just in the short term but over the long haul.

ceiiinosssttuv

This suite of journal functions is not just incidental but indispensable to the progress of science. Before the advent of journals, and even in their early days, scientists like Hooke would achieve some of the needed functionality by publishing their results in the form of anagrams, such as the one above, floated in 1676. Only two years later would Hooke reveal that rearranged, these letters were the Latin expression ut tensio, sic vis of his eponymous law: stress is proportional to strain. (If interested, you can read a bit more of the backstory on such use of anagrams here.)

Which brings to mind a question (channeling the inimitable Barbara Mandrell a bit): Could science journals have been blockchains before blockchains were a thing?

They certainly perform some blockchain functions. Look at this excerpt from an IBM website, typical of many on-line introductory links out there (if interested, dive into the five-minute-total collection of introductory IBM videos on the topic available on the same link). Blockchains embody

Distributed ledger technology

All network participants have access to the distributed ledger and its immutable record of transactions. With this shared ledger, transactions are recorded only once, eliminating the duplication of effort that’s typical of traditional business networks.

Records are immutable

No participant can change or tamper with a transaction after it’s been recorded to the shared ledger. If a transaction record includes an error, a new transaction must be added to reverse the error, and both transactions are then visible.

Smart contracts

To speed transactions, a set of rules – called a smart contract – is stored on the blockchain and executed automatically. A smart contract can define conditions for corporate bond transfers, include terms for travel insurance to be paid and much more.

Of course, the blockchain folks have bigger, more expansive ideas for the ways blockchains can underpin or supplant journals, and even how blockchain technology can weave through the entire fabric of science.

To sum up: specialized recordkeeping – peer-controlled, immutable, a shared record of truth. These similarities/shared goals – and the prospect that journals and the scientific enterprise may adopt or more blockchain-based mien – together suggest that the current information revolution, far from reducing the cost of journals, may force costs up. That’s because blockchains, as presently implemented, tie up vast computing capacity and consume stupefying amounts of energy as they grow.

More in the next post.


[1]Hooke was a bachelor, but may have had a child out of wedlock. If you’re reading this, your chances of being related to him in some way are probably as good as mine.

[2]Another side note: in the early days, before the Royal Society would accept your paper for publication, they’d repeat the experiment. Hooke earned his pay by performing two experiments per week for the Society. Imagine passing that test today – imagine forcing those working on multi-national, multi-year projects like VORTEXor big satellite instrument platforms and packages like GOES to wait for years until successor, confirmatory projects could be run, before accepting their research results for publication.

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Open access journals. Part 1.

“Information wants to be free.“ Stewart Brand

Finally! We’ve seen the back of 2019; the year 2020 beckons, with all its promise and potential for a fresh start. You and I enter the year as new creations. But if we’re to realize versus squander this annual opportunity for refreshment and renewal – indeed for personal transformation – it’s time to cobble together a set of New Year’s resolutions.

Surveys suggest most of us aim first at improving our physical and financial health (better diet, more exercise, lose weight; save more, spend less). But you have to read a ways down any top-ten list before you come to resolutions along the lines of learn something new.

Hmm, that seems important too. But learn what? It depends. People generally may view learning something new as acquiring a new skill or a hobby.  A vignette: Jerry Mahlmann was one of the leading NWP researchers in his day. He was also an avid basketball player. But one day, when we were both in our fifties, I asked him about the basketball, and he said, “Oh, I’m playing volleyball now.” When I asked why, he said with a smile, “I’m getting better at volleyball.”

But for anyone in knowledge work, building our capacity to contribute at the job takes priority. Case in point. I’m employed by a scientific/professional society, one celebrating its centennial, and seeking to be as relevant to the coming century as it was to the last. As a result, I’m belatedly trying to come up to speed on the issue of open-access journals.  

(Really, Bill? The topic is incredibly arcane, esoteric. It’s complicated – stupefyingly, head-spinningly so. And it’s dry – material on the subject can seem a bit dull, calling to mind a vast, parched landscape, one rapidly becoming still more desertified. Why, Bill?)

Truth be told? If you’re working in the policy corner of the AMS, it’s been tempting to stick your head in the sand and ignore this issue in favor of climate-change policy and carbon fees, or on building resilience to hazards, or renewable energy, or public-private partnerships domestically and internationally, or any of a dozen other topics. Tempting to leave this open-access issue to AMS publications staff and volunteer leadership and the AMS Executive Director.

But recently, the U.S. government has signaled that it is contemplating further steps toward completely open access. The prospect is generating greater science-society concern (see also here).

And the issue matters:

  • Journals actually add great value to science; they’re not just an incremental final add-on. That value is achievable only at a cost, a cost that needs to be repaid by someone. In the past, those costs have been recovered through a mix of subscription fees and author charges (page charges, charges for color, etc.) that are now under scrutiny. This business model matters existentially not just to my employer but also to other science societies generally.
  • The cost-savings implied by electronic publishing and advances in information technology notwithstanding, those costs look set to rise significantly in future years.
  • The trends responsible for all this are larger than science, outside of science.
  • But the threat to journals (and hence to science itself) feeds back – poses risks for our larger society.

This and a few succeeding posts (admittedly more focused on why we might care than what we should do) attempt to unpack these points. (Full disclosure; the posts are not self-contained; they merely provide links to a few points-of-entry for interested readers wanting to make the deeper dive.)

Wikipedia provides a summary that can get us started. The (fairly extensive) entry begins this way:

Open access (OA) is a mechanism by which research outputs are distributed online, free of cost or other access barriers. With open access strictly defined (according to the 2001 definition), or libre open access, barriers to copying or reuse are also reduced or removed by applying an open license for copyright.

Sounds simple enough. And on the surface, compelling. In particular, scientific research is funded by governments, and thus, ultimately by taxpayers. And isn’t information technology rapidly bringing down the costs of dissemination? In the year 2020, why shouldn’t everyone get free, immediate access to the research results? Why should any taxpayer have to pay twice? Why should they have to wait?

Strikingly, this particular Wikipedia open-access entry, though structured and extensive, begins with a caveat, repeated here verbatim:

This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards. The specific problem is: Need to reduce repetition across sections and make language more concise and avoid advocacy in favor of open access [emphasis added]. Also, lots of text on issues that are not specific to OA needs to be removed (inclusiveness of databases, criticism of IF) Please help improve this article if you can. (May 2018)

This is the kind of caveat usually reserved for stubs. In other words, Wikipedia, an institution synonymous with, indeed iconic for, open-access, suggests a need for much further reflection and dialog – and more balance – regarding the pros and cons of open access. Which brings us to:

Information wants to be free.

This Stewart Brand aphorism has been widely bandied about, but it’s no mere quote. It embodies the core spirit and vitality of the information age. That said, it captures merely one side of his fuller thinking. We find, from the Wikipedia entry devoted to his quote:

…attributed to Stewart Brand, who, in the late 1960s, founded the Whole Earth Catalog and argued that technology could be liberating rather than oppressing. The earliest recorded occurrence of the expression was at the first Hackers Conference in 1984. Brand told Steve Wozniak:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

(Wow. Information wants to be free? Only half the story, perhaps even less.) It turns out that information is not only valuable, it’s fragile. Information faces several risks: being diluted to the point of worthlessness, being inaccessible; or worse, being distorted, misrepresented.

There’s much more to this, but it’ll have to await future LOTRW posts.

In the meantime, a closing thought: Some 10% of U.S. beef cattle are raised grazing on federal lands. Why shouldn’t that beef should be free to the American taxpayer?

My guess is any reader would be instantly dismissive of this notion, and appropriately so. There are costs to protecting a herd, to transporting and butchering the beef, the preserving and testing it to ensure safe consumption, to packaging it for the consumer. But in many respects, science journals play a similar part in making science consumable/accessible to public that needs it. The analogy isn’t perfect, but neither is it misdirected. Think about it.

And voluntary contributions (a policy solution often suggested to provide the incremental funding journal publications need) are limited, intermittent, and fickle; they’re mismatched to the continuity and sustainability a robust journal infrastructure requires.

Case in point? The plaintive Wikipedia pop-up plea for donations that has intruded on my every use of the site this past month (probably dozens of times a day).

In years past, I’ve ignored the appeal. This year, I made my first donation. Ever.  

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