A new AMS policy statement on space weather.

In July, the American Meteorological Society’s Council adopted a new policy statement on space weather. It’s worth a read in its entirety; here’s an excerpt with the core recommendations.

-The federal government should support research at academic, industry, and government labs to improve our understanding of space weather processes and their effects. It is paramount to the national security and economic interest of the U.S. to understand space weather phenomena in order to enable more accurate, timely, and actionable predictions.

-The federal government should continue to be a leader in: 1) ensuring uninterrupted, operational space weather monitoring that includes adequate space-based and ground-based observing systems;  2) supporting research and development of space weather modeling, and the transitioning of those models from research to operations; 3) ensuring the stewardship of data and delivery of products and services that meet users’ needs; 4) providing a robust space weather processing and prediction capability; and 5) developing mitigation strategies and hardening systems to contend with an extreme event. 

-The commercial sector should play a significant role in 1) expanding the customer base with new products and new customers; 2) performing research and providing essential services and products to the government and industry; 3) contributing to space weather information, policy, and forecasts; 4) collaborating with other sectors; and 5) participating in setting national research agendas and funding priorities that will advance the entire space weather enterprise across commercial, academic, and government sectors.

-Universities, in collaboration with the commercial sector and the federal government, should continue to:  1) conduct space weather research; 2) involve students in that research to educate a new generation of professionals who are proficient in both space weather science and its societal applications; and 3) broaden their science curricula to include space weather and its effects.

-Members of the space weather enterprise should strengthen communications and coordination to ensure that government, commercial, academic, and international organizations work together to facilitate cooperation and improve the effectiveness of the space weather enterprise. Members should participate in the identification of high-priority focus areas that will advance the entire space weather enterprise across government, commercial, and academic sectors.

Some commentary:

The process. Non-AMS members may well ask, by what process are AMS statements developed? [Truth be told, some AMS members may themselves be a bit vague on these specifics.] To quote from the governing AMS procedures: The basic steps leading to completion of a statement of the AMS are as follows: initiation, appointment of a drafting committee, drafting of the statement by the drafting committee, review, revision, and AMS Council approval. The entire process intentionally takes several months. It is transparent, specifying opportunities for the entire AMS membership to engage at several points. Members may volunteer for selection to the drafting committee; review and comment on the drafts of the document, etc. Enlistment of subject-matter experts, peer review, and deliberation are extensive throughout. Speaking of extensive, the guidelines for statements run more than ten pages…

Motherhood and apple pie? Some readers might read this particular statement and its recommendations and find little they “didn’t know already,” or that wouldn’t apply generically to other pursuits. But consider: (1) these statements are foundational rather than exhaustive or prescriptive. Here’s the idea. Suppose, for example, at some future time, federal agencies and the Congress are weighing whether to include a solar-sensor on a given Earth-orbiting satellite platform. The philosophy of the statement can be used as a basis for an AMS response to requests for perspective. Statements provide a high-level framework for decisions and action. They rarely delve into specifics.

On occasion, AMS statements break new ground, or respond to new realities. [The AMS statement on geoengineering the climate system fell into this category when first issued.] But more often they reiterate longstanding, general principles as they apply to new, emerging topics, e.g., space weather. Which raises the next question:

Why space weather in the American Meteorological Society? Here are two pieces to the logic. First, those professionals and experts engaged in environmental predictions and environmental science and observations contributing to those predictions, regardless of stripe, form a community of practice. They face common challenges and issues, whether the predictions refer to meteorology per se, ocean conditions such as storm surge and wave height, climate variability including cycles of flood and drought, river stage and flow, solar flares, or, for that matter, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other geological hazards. Regardless of the forecast problem, the task calls for an understanding of the basic science; identification and continuous observations of the parameters that are most reliable indicators of how conditions are tending; assimilation of these data into numerical models; dissemination; full comprehension of the societal impacts; the social science of how people respond to warnings; effective treatments of uncertainty; and much more.

The difference is that meteorologists have been making weather forecasts and society has been making decisions based on their use – country to country, day to day and hour to hour – for some 150 years. The predictions, their verifications, and their use in practice number in the hundreds of millions. No other arena for environmental prediction has undergone such extensive scrutiny and testing. As a result, forecasters in the emerging fields are looking to the experience of meteorologists as a guide.

Second, the development of environmental predictions and their use must deal with a universal policy challenge: how can or should government, industry, and universities collaborate? Note that the space weather recommendations focus heavily on this aspect. Again, the meteorological community and the AMS share unique credibility and legitimacy here. They’ve worked through these very issues for decades prior to, and then for some ten years in response to, the findings and recommendations of the 2003 National Academies/National Research Council Fair Weather report.

But logic isn’t the whole story. AMS involvement also reflects the power and influence of a singular, special individual. Back in 2000, the AMS hired Dr. Genene Fisher, then a fresh Ph.D. in atmospheric and space sciences from the University of Michigan (Tim Killeen was her thesis advisor) with a masters degree in public policy (under Homer Neal). To say that Dr. Fisher has been a force in bringing space weather and space weather policy into the AMS fold would be to grossly understate. All of us struggled to keep up with her for the ten years she was with us before she moved on to the National Weather Service of NOAA. Dr. Fisher would be the first to admit that she had considerable help along the way… from senior space weather scientists in the federal agencies and a number of private-sector professionals. But all of them would acknowledge that she’s the real reason that we have this space weather policy statement, an AMS space weather committee, and that the upcoming 2014 AMS Annual Meeting will include its 11th (!) conference on space weather.

The takeaway for you and me? Several come to mind:

–       We are most successful when we work in community across public, private and academic sectors. No single sector can go it alone; to solve national problems and seize new possibilities we need to acknowledge and make use of each sector’s strengths and contributions.

–       The upcoming AMS Summer Community Meeting, to be held in Boulder August 12-16, is the latest of annual opportunities for the members of the three sectors to convene and share ideas and perspective. A decade of such meetings has worked out a number of kinks in the process. Each meeting has been more useful than the last. You can join us and make the sessions even more valuable.

–       We will grow even more effective in serving society as we increasingly entrain user communities depending on these environmental predictions; this summer’s program shows early steps in this direction.

–       Your and my ability to shape events and make the world a better place doesn’t depend on where we find ourselves geographically, or where we’re employed, or the stage of our career. Dr. Fisher started making her presence felt immediately after receiving her degree. Young or old, we can do the same, if we’ll just bloom where planted.

What are we waiting for?

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