State of the Sectors

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” – Abraham Lincoln, in his 1858 House divided speech 

Tuesday’s focus at the AMS Summer Community Meeting is the state of the community’s sectors: academic, public, and private. Panelists have been asked to address the health of these respective sectors, their strengths and weaknesses, and each sector’s ability to meet the need of its primary constituents. Is academia producing the successful graduates needed by the public and private sectors? Is the public sector able to meet national needs, including the needs of the private sector? Is the private sector able to meet the needs of its customers?

Great questions. Pivotally important to our community, and to those we serve. That’s especially true of those aspects that deal with the relationships among the sectors, as opposed to their health and capabilities viewed in isolation. It’s how we work together to serve our public(s) that matters most.

But, like Lincoln, those in this readership want to better judge what to do, and how to do it.

So, hopefully, in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the speakers will provide not only a diagnosis but also a prognosis. With any luck they’ll address not just the health and capabilities of our community today, but whither we are tending. As the months and years roll by, are we growing more capable relative to coming demands? Or less so?

In a rapidly changing world, this is the question that matters most.

As Brian Bell articulated so eloquently at today’s session, our future prospects, and the hopes and the aspirations of the world that is counting on us to do our job, hinge on innovation. That innovation starts with how well we adapt and respond to social change and scientific and technical advance, not just in our field, but across all of society. And it doesn’t end there. We must do better than simply react. When it comes to Earth observations, science, and services, we will be expected to completely remake ourselves every few years until further notice – and not willy-nilly, but in purposeful, effective ways, that keep pace with or exceed the progress in other arenas.

There was some talk at today’s meetings along the lines that budget cuts for our work are inevitable, and that therefore we’ll have to prioritize and make cuts “or someone else will do it for us.”

We can’t afford to adopt this approach. First, such decisions aren’t within our remit. No one gave us authority to pick and choose. [Do you and I want to turn our AMS community into Lincoln’s “house divided against itself (that) cannot stand”? Then let’s go ahead and choose some programs other than our own that could be jettisoned.] Second, if we make such decisions, the cuts we suggest for Earth observations, science, and services will indeed come, but those funds won’t be freed up for other more important priorities in ours or any field. They will simply disappear. At best, we’d be making Sophie’s choice.

But third, and most fundamentally, if we allow – or worse yet – contribute to such cuts, we’ll be failing our most important responsibility. The world’s defining challenge in this 21st century is the threefold problem of natural resource extraction (food, water, energy), environmental protection, and resilience to hazards. This crisis hits at just the moment when our society as a whole has entered a virtual world (itself within the cocoon of the artificial world of the industrial revolution) to such a degree that most people have lost any firsthand contact or experience with this challenge. People buy their food from a supermarket or eat at restaurants. They get their water from a tap, their electricity from an outlet, and their gas at a pump. They get all they need to know with a few clicks on a smartphone. They (us, for that matter) have an impoverished idea of the web of infrastructure and processes and human effort that underpins all that…and how that plays out against the planet’s finite carrying capacity. The world’s peoples are counting on a relative handful of us to help them navigate this problematic future. We can’t allow them to unthinkingly cut us off from the tools we need to succeed at our task.

Whew! In the summer’s heat, and given the enormity of the challenge, it’s easy to feel defeated, timid.

Don’t give in.

As Mike Smith often says (see his comment on the previous post), “if we don’t promote the value of what we do, who will?”

Still feeling daunted? Then take one minute – that’s all – to watch this 1997 Apple commercial: Think Different.

Let’s be those people crazy enough to think we can change the world.

And then go out and change it.

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