20th Biennial Joint AMS/AGU Heads and Chairs Meeting 13 – 14 October 2016 Boulder, CO

Dave Jones is a leading figure in the Weather Enterprise (in fact, the reach of his innovation and influence extends far more broadly, across the world of IT). His comment on the last LOTRW post is gracious, well-said and germane to where we’re going today. Accordingly, it’s reproduced here in its entirety:

“Great article Bill. I agree the meeting was informative and upbeat with NWS communicating a vision that is transformative. The fact that roughly 44% of the NWS workforce is eligible for retirement in 5 years is alarming and this reorganization is coming just in time. New energy from the growing number of young professionals need a vision and a purpose, to want to protect the nation and make it more resilient in the face of increasing extreme weather.

 Some of those who will emerge as future leaders are already in the organization while others are now looking for ‘something exciting to dive into’. The main point is that none of these future leaders will get the spark unless they are driven by a purpose. NWS leadership is evolving that purpose and it is beginning to show. Everyone will benefit from this painful two year period of reorganization as the NWS and its partners in the private sector put more environmental intelligence to work than ever before through innovation and the desire to succeed.”

44% of the NWS workforce is eligible for retirement over the next 5 years?


Dave is right to draw attention to this indicator emerging from the Q&A during Tuesday’s NWS Fall Partners Meeting. The demographic isn’t a mere statistic – it defines both a challenge and a milestone opportunity for the National Weather Service – in the ways and for the reasons he eloquently states.

But it also challenges the academic community: how should departments and faculties prepare the new generation of professionals entering meteorology? What should new entrants be taught? What do they need to know? This piece of the puzzle didn’t receive much explicit follow-up discussion in Silver Spring, but it totally preoccupied another meeting – one held two weeks earlier and two thousand miles away, in Boulder, Colorado.

Every two years, UCAR extends its annual fall governance meetings by two days to co-host, with AMS and AGU, a meeting of chairs of university earth sciences departments. This year’s discussions focused on three topics: (i) the role of academic departments in communicating science issues to policy makers, (ii) challenges posed by data storage and access, and (iii) a discussion of the upcoming 2017 revision of the AMS Statement on the Bachelor’s Degree in Atmospheric Science.

Each bears on what new NWS entry-level employees will need to know.

Let’s start with the latter. What skills and knowledge should define a college-level graduate in this field in the years 2017 and beyond? Some basics, of course, remain unchanged. But new, additional needs are entering in. For example, should today’s graduates be expected to know and understand the science of communication, and social science more broadly? The conclusion from the Boulder meeting was an emphatic yes if they’re going into careers forecasting for NWS or private-sector weather firms, or into broadcast meteorology. But the discussion also made clear that in a packed-full curriculum these new topics could only be introduced if some existing curriculum material is dropped. Lest any reader think such tradeoffs would be minor, consider that some of the candidates for trade included differential equations (vital to understanding atmospheric fluid dynamics) and Maxwell’s equations (important for understanding of lightning, space weather, and much of remote sensing). Meeting participants emphasized the obvious – for undergraduates hoping to pursue research careers in meteorology such mathematics and physics would be a sine qua non. For those planning private-sector employment in agribusiness or energy or transportation sectors, additional background in economics and finance would be essential.

Working backward, the presentations on data access and the ensuing discussions were equally eye-opening. University faculty have clearly been focused on this issue for years, but to a bystander it was striking to realize how profound a transition has been underway in undergraduate education. Back in the day, faculty and students looked to UCAR for access to computing per se, and use of field facilities such as radars, aircraft and the like. The twin concerns continue to this day, but in recent years, the focus has broadened to include access to the world’s data and to the analytic capabilities needed to mine and synthesize the bits and bytes from diverse data sets for their underlying information. Such access to the world’s existing and growing data trove is essential for students and faculty attempting to meet their responsibilities to the Weather Enterprise and society at large. This is more than a simple matter of providing a few links to “the cloud.” Access requires education and training for students (and their faculty) across a range of IT – yet another claim on the finite number of classroom hours available for a bachelor’s degree.

Which brings us to the first of the topics taken up by the UCAR Heads and Chairs – communicating science issues to policymakers. As argued in Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, as world knowledge grows and with it the need to tackle problems holistically, it becomes ever-more important to leverage our puny human intelligence by means of effective policies that make our thinking productive, in much the same way that higher-level computer languages and software help us transcend the limitations of working in machine language. But – you guessed it – engaging effectively in the policy process versus making a hash of it requires education and training. We need to be as disciplined in our approach to the policy process as we are to our science. The focus here was on faculty, but new entrants to the field need this situational awareness as well.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve already drawn your own conclusions about all this.

First and foremost, today’s students, even undergraduates, need to learn a lot!

But two additional realities also come to mind. Today, all of us in the 21st century, no matter how far removed from the days of our formal schooling,  need the mindset of students. We’re continually being asked explicitly or implicitly to learn more – so much more that along the way somewhere we have to “learn how to learn.” Unsurprisingly, there’s a wealth of literature that falls under this heading. (Should you want to chase that rabbit today, here’s a link to get you started.) Indeed, the biggest challenge here with all the offerings on the internet and elsewhere is the highly personal task of “learning what to learn,” specifically, distinguishing between opportunities and distractions. You and I can’t learn everything. We have to bring to bear those two most important commodities – our energy and our time – on learning those few things that matter most to us on the most fundamental and satisfying and enduring level, and that lay a foundation for the next round of learning.

That calls to mind an old term that was popular when I was at university: a so-called “liberal arts education.” Wikipedia provides a couple of nice paragraphs in introducing this subject:

The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberalis, “worthy of a free person”) to know in order to take an active part in civic life [emphasis added], something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education.

 In modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences, or it can also refer to overall studies in a liberal arts degree program. For example, Harvard University offers a Bachelor of Arts degree, which covers the social and physical sciences as well as the humanities. For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curriculum…”

On the eve of the 2016 elections, it’s worth ending on this note: the key challenge for the environmental intelligence community is not how to organize NOAA, or the relationship between NOAA and its private-sector and academic partners, or in the professional development of the workforce, although these carry weight. Rather it’s how “to take an active part in civic life” – that is, engage the larger public/civil society on the resource,- hazard-, and environmental issues that matter most.

More in the next post.

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