(More) lessons from covid-19

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not before.”– Rahm Emanuel

(Wall Street Journal interview, November 19, 2008)

Covid-19 has reinforced an old lesson: pandemics and other disasters are inherently nonlinear and integrative. Pre-disaster, our respective lives and our families and our work and our destinies seemed only loosely connected to each other; we all enjoyed great freedom to follow our individual inclinations. The economy and public health, though co-existing, were essentially unrelated. But then the disaster hit; suddenly we found our lives and futures tightly intertwined. That cliché “we’re all in it together” turned out to be the reality.

Those who managed our once separate lives – our spouses and our bosses and our political masters who tweaked our conduct and performance, molding us and making us more useful to society (and sometimes to their personal ends) – also awakened to reality. At all times, but most visibly in times of crisis, the task that matters most is leadership – not modifying behavior but instead listening to and working with people to uncover and build and articulate common aspiration and purpose and enthusiasm. Judged by this more demanding standard, some of the folks in charge rise in public regard while others fall.

A big lesson indeed. But the covid-19 crisis has so much more to teach us. The schooling doesn’t stop there. The pandemic underscores three other important realities: (1) Disaster recovery may be a widely held notion, and a subject of study by experts, but it’s not a real thing. (2) Hurricanes, earthquakes, and many other disasters are confined locally and are of short duration, leaving a much larger world essentially untouched, able to conduct business as usual; but disasters of fully global scale require a different conceptualization and treatment. (3) For most people undergoing a disaster and its aftermath, a major challenge is the loss of what is called agency.  

Each provides opportunities for learning that could vaccinate us against future disasters. Let’s begin with: 

Disaster recovery is an oxymoron[1]. Those individuals who experience but survive a catastrophe – who lose a loved one, or their homes or jobs or businesses in a hurricane or tornado or earthquake – rarely actually recover. Instead they move into a new normal. Their lives take a substantially different trajectory. They’re changed physically, mentally, spiritually by the experience.  Their financial, career, and life circumstances are permanently altered. Similarly, the idea of community recovery fails to capture what actually takes place. New homes may be built where the old ones stood. New jobs may arise to replace the old. But often, entirely new people enter the affected area from outside. A community’s governance, economy, culture, and social networks may still be there to be seen, but they’re not a recovered version of the old; it’s not the population or the demographic that was before. Ask Puerto Ricans if they’ve recovered from hurricane Maria. Ask Houstonians if they’ve recovered from hurricane Harvey. For that matter, ask New Orleanians if they’ve recovered from hurricane Katrina. The late-summer anniversaries of these events will bring a new spate of updates, rediscovering this same reality. 

Life for the survivors does move on. It’s not just about loss. Even during the disaster itself, there’s good (as described so well by Rebecca Solnit in her wonderful 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, the Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster). More encouraging signs follow. As time passes, there’s healing, and new preoccupations and new aspirations.  New relations are formed. New love is built. Positive things happen. 

Good wins out. 

But the more accurate way to look at the healing is this: it’s the much larger society that recovers. An analogy: suppose I cut my hand in a kitchen accident. Some time later, I’m healed. Fact is, that slight cut hardly slowed me down. But the millions of cells that had been at the site of the wound? They died, and stayed dead, starting on day one.

Which segues to the second lesson:

Global catastrophes bring additional challenges. These days, amid the personal concerns (how do I keep the kids moving forward when school’s out and they’re isolated at home? Did that person in the supermarket cough as he went by? Is my throat just dry or is that the beginning of something more serious?), we look around or catch up with the news and are confronted by larger questions: what does recovery look like, what’s the path forward, following this catastrophe? When everything we’ve learned about smaller disasters – the floods and the tornadoes, and the earthquakes, and more – is scaled up? When there’s essentially no untouched part of society to carry on? When we have to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps, instead of relying on an external helping hand?

In particular, how and when will I start working again? What does it mean to reboot the world economy? Experience with small disasters gives us clues. Take restoration of power following a hurricane. Step one is waiting for daylight. Step two is clearing the debris making roads impassable to and within the areas hardest hit. Step three is bringing up the infrastructure. Restoring power to hospitals, the larger population clusters comes next. The last step, restoring power to scattered individual homes, can take days. It’s messy and prolonged, and life is on hold until pretty much the end. (Oh, and did we cover the piece where many of the crews working the restoration came from unaffected utilities in the states nearby? And now we’re talking about “no unaffected states;” they have their own preoccupations and priorities. We’re seeing this play out in the global and state-by-state competition for medical gear and personnel.) Restoring global commerce will take time. It will be messy. There will be casualties. We can’t just wait for help; we need to shoulder personal responsibility.

Experience with the impacts of lesser disasters on local business gives us an idea of what to expect.  FEMA studies, and others, suggest that something like half of small businesses that close their doors during a disaster never reopen. It’s not just that small businesses suffer property loss. Their income stream may be interrupted, because their employees or their customer base were affected by the disaster. Most small businesses are marginal; few can afford insurance against such disruption. And the history is that SBA and similar loans, which can lay claim to personal assets as collateral, too often merely aggravate and prolong the agony for the small-business owner.

Covid-19 is playing out this scenario on the big screen. It’s hammered not just small business, but also larger firms. It’s disrupted entire sectors of the economy: cruises; air travel, and transportation more generally; restaurants, the hotel industry, sports, entertainment; retailing; the oil sector. Each day brings home new understanding of the fuller, still-unfolding dimensions of the impact. 

Which brings us to the third lesson:

Disasters destroy agency. When life is normal, prior to a disaster, most people – including you and me – enjoy a degree of control over daily decisions and with regard to their longer-term destiny. People have options; they make choices. They then act. But those who evacuate in the face of a hurricane and relocate in the gymnasium of an inland school, or who flee the wrath of a dictator like Syria’s Assad, and find themselves in a refugee camp backed up against the Turkish border, walk into a condition of total dependency. They lack means to feed or shelter themselves or their families. They have no opportunity for work. They lack transportation to seek help; they lose their standing and their ability to engage governments and larger authority. They can only wait for needed help to come to them. Social scientists call this a loss of agency.

Like a vaccination, as opposed to the real thing, covid-19 and the strictures imposed on our behavior, our freedom of movement, extending even our apparel, are giving each and every one of us on the planet the opportunity to experience this loss of agency first hand.  Our workplaces are shuttered. Employees are working from home or furloughed. Restaurants and stores are closed. Schools have cancelled classes through the end of the semester. Sports, the performing arts and other forms of entertainment have evaporated. Travel and movement, even in public places, are restricted. We’re now encouraged to wear masks everywhere we go.

The experience doesn’t begin to parallel the gymnasium shelter or the refugee camp, where food supply is intermittent at best and by no means assured, where sanitation and privacy are lacking, where basic human rights and aspirations are suddenly no longer a given. But the days or weeks of social distancing the world is experiencing so far and the weeks of more of the same that lie ahead should have convinced the most sanguine of us: we never want to experience anything remotely like this again in our lifetimes

Disaster experts tell us that our personal experiences with disaster shape our response to future such threats. Here’s an (admittedly antique) example. If hurricane Camille hits in 1969 and its winds and surge destroy my house, carry me and my family a mile inland, and we manage to save ourselves only by clinging to a tree, I respond to hurricane Katrina in 2005 by evacuating. If I was hundred miles away from the eye of hurricane Camille and the winds were high but the house remained intact, I decide to ride out Katrina. I maybe fail to refine my decisions based on where forecasters and emergency managers tell me I stand (stood) relative to the oncoming storm, or even based on the reality that I’ve aged three decades and am no longer the young man or woman I’d been back then. 

What are some of the covid-19 takeaways? You can develop your own better ideas, but here are some thoughts to start.

  1. Purpose to never again be complacent regarding the fate of others who suffer disaster at the hands of nature. Do your bit to help out. If you can’t do so personally, hold your business and public leaders to account. Insist they focus attention and resources on recovery from California wildfires, or Gulf Coast hurricanes, or Puerto Rico’s hurricanes and earthquakes. Don’t allow those survivors to dangle in the wind.
  • As for your present circumstance in this pandemic, expect a changed future; not a return to what was. Read, listen to what others see as the likely aftermath. Form your own ideas. Think through their implications for your life, your relationships, your career. 
  • Embrace that future! Reclaim your agency as quickly as possible. And take it a step further. Purpose to be an agent of the coming change, not simply an observer, or a passive participant. Don’t let the future simply happen to you.
  • Take the lesson to heart! Learn from this experience. Disaster experts talk about the disaster cycle: mitigation, preparation, response, recovery. Repeat. Wait a second! Cycle? Repeat? That’s not learning; that’s failure to learn. Do your bit to ensure that the next virus encounters a more prepared world, not a similarly vulnerable world. For that matter, meet the Rahm Emanuel challenge. Recognize that maybe – just maybe – the covid-19 experience can equip humanity to deal with climate change. Seize the opportunity.
  • And finally (and this might not seem to you to fit the tone of the post so far, but it’s the most important part), relax. You’ve always wanted to live a life that matters. That issue is no longer in suspense. Threats to your agency notwithstanding, your life – what you do, and how and why you do it, matter more now, going forward, than ever before. The rest of us need you. We’re counting on you. We’re glad you’re here, and that you’re engaged, and that you’re part of the solution. You’ve got our back, and we have yours. We’re in this together. And together – we’ve got this.

[1]The ideas here, and throughout this post, have been introduced in earlier posts in LOTRW, and in LOTRW the book (especially on pp. 141-145, but threaded through).

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covid-19 as vaccination for tomorrow. Part 2.

Picking up from the previous LOTRW post:

Okay, Bill, where does the covid-19-as-vaccine concept come in? Convince me.

Start close. Covid-19 is proving deadly. But it’s a mere “cowpox” compared with other more serious disease threats that have concerned public health officials for years, starting with a suite of truly deadly viruses, some packing whopping 30% fatality rates or greater, that may be merely a mutation or so away from airborne contagion. Covid-19 has revealed a clear need for the world to buttress the science and practice of epidemiology and disease surveillance – early detection, testing, and more. It’s also exposed deficiencies in current healthcare infrastructure, in particular a lack of surge capacity. 

Today, governors, legislators, and their staffers are scrambling to increase the numbers of practitioners and equip them with what they need for self-protection as they treat the rest of us. At the same time, politicians and public-health officials are beginning to rethink the longer term. They’re looking at novel ways to provide surge capacity when needed. They’re rebalancing the current priority the developed world gives to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other first-world scourges to favor more attention/resources to infectious disease. Such options, and many others, are on the table for policymakers going forward.

And don’t forget that covid-19 is “vaccinating” our children. Millions of young people, including boys and girls at the impressionable age of ten or so, have been forced to stay home from school. At least some of their number are inspired, not simply frightened, by the great drama they see unfolding every day on television. They want to be part of the action. They’re making life-changing career decisions even at that tender age (just as many of today’s weather professionals point back to a tornado or blizzard they experienced in youth). They’ll be the Anthony Faucis and Deborah Birxs of tomorrow.

At the same time, covid-19 is also vaccinating the world economy and financial sectors. The pandemic has revealed today’s global material affluence to be fragile, brittle at best – not by any stretch of the imagination resilient. 

The world financial crisis of 2007-2008 provides a recent parallel. Decades of increasingly dodgy mortgage lending had built up a hidden vulnerability in the system. In the years since, the financial sector has developed and imposed periodic stress tests and other regulatory measures on banks and other financial institutions to protect against recurrence. 

Then there are other global threats. Several have been identified – nuclear war, an asteroid strike, even a pandemic – but none is really being taken seriously.  (Perhaps in the present case it may have been a view that pandemic would cause a problem only if large percentages of workers actually died.) Covid-19 has made it clear that a small number of fatalities, in even a localized area, can by itself cause the global system to seize up. Governments and the private sector worldwide will get more serious about such contingency planning, preparation, and early intervention for a fuller range of disaster scenarios. 

In this way, covid-19 is reinforcing a broader lesson: disasters are inherently integrative and nonlinear[1]. In ordinary times, leaders and peoples might think it reasonable to manage public health and financial sectors as separate entities. But in times of emergency they reveal they’re tightly woven together, and entangled with all other sectors (education, transportation, entertainment, and so on). Future strategic planning and stress tests have to incorporate interactions spanning the whole society in times of emergency. The metaphor “ripple effects” doesn’t do justice to the reality.

Fact is, in emergencies (catastrophe, disaster, disruption – choose your preferred label), “management” itself is an early casualty. That’s because “management” is about doing things right, making incremental improvements when current circumstances are close to ideal. By contrast, dire circumstances call for “leadership:” doing the right things. Management is merely about driving the car; leadership is about actually forming/choosing a goal or destination – a purpose. In democracies worldwide, people are seeing and judging the performance of the men and women in charge under stress: the presidents and governors, the prime ministers and mayors, the legislators. Expect to see a signal from such assessments in the next round of elections worldwide. 

Bottom line? This disease outbreak, however costly and devastating it’s proving (and it’s early days yet), will likely at the same time do us a favor – by inoculating us against the next.  But there’s more…

…to be covered next time.


[1]And considered elsewhere in LOTRW, in both the blog and the book (pp. 2-4). 

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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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