A politically resilient Weather/Climate Enterprise?

The previous LOTRW post, focusing on the future of the Weather and Climate Enterprise, and the need for sustained and strategic public-private collaboration, evoked a few responses from the AMS Community (thanks all around!). This thoughtful and extended contribution from Howard Hanson was  in the mix (full disclosure: Howard and I go back many years through our joint time at NOAA):

Bill — It’s encouraging to hear that NOAA leadership is taking such an ecumenical approach to the future of the enterprise. My experience was that this approach was always embedded in the organization, but it didn’t seem to be spoken from the top as much as this.

One thing I don’t see in your discussion is a view toward strengthening resiliency of the enterprise with respect to withstanding the slings and arrows of choices by the electorate that put science in general at risk. How should the future evolve so that such interludes as the presidential term ending in early 2021 don’t do so much harm?

That, certainly, is an ecumenical subject that just about every scientific and technical organization could get behind. Best, HPH


To begin with Howard’s comment: the “ecumenical approach” has indeed been imbedded throughout the organization, and in the hearts and minds of NOAA employees. But given the number of employees, and the breadth and the scope of NOAA’s work, it should not be surprising to find a history of widely diverse approaches to the collaboration (some short-lived, some enduring), including several that might even have been at cross-purposes. As the safety-, economic-, and environmental stakes have grown in scale, urgency, and visibility, it’s increasingly necessary that the collaborations become more structured and disciplined, while maintaining the degree of diversity and flexibility needed to foster innovation. Accordingly, as Howard suggests, NOAA leadership attention is most welcome.

That bring us to Howard’s question: how to make science less vulnerable to politics? Here there’s no single right answer. The good news is there are multiple helpful ideas – many more than the AMS, or even the fuller community, has members. A few initial conjectures that will hopefully prompt wider and more deliberate thought.

The threat may be in our heads. One of the great and widely distributed human gifts is the ability to feel put upon. Scientists are no exception to this rule. Additionally, social scientists remind us that pessimism and risk aversion hold considerable survival value, and are therefore prevalent across society. Generally speaking, scientists are viewed by society as a privileged class. We should think hard before complaining.

Utility is our greatest protection. It’s by no means surefire. The goose that laid the golden eggs – was executed. But that goose has been the exception, and lives on as a cautionary tale. DJ Patil, President Obama’s Chief Data Scientist, made that point at an AMS Washington Forum several years ago, and in a Stanford commencement speech. He encouraged his hearers to return ten times their salaries /costs in value to their employers. The weather/climate enterprise surely meets that criterion today and will likely produce a far greater rate of return in future years. N.B.: to be useful is a far better insurance policy for our community than to be a climate scold. A bit of nagging, given the world’s current state, may be needed. But it’s better and more artfully done through the likes of Greta Thunberg. Enterprise focus is rightfully placed on practical help – and help that’s equally accessible to all, regardless of age, ethnicity, and political and cultural preferences. (Just saying.)

We want a supportive electorate? Then let’s invest in that electorate. Let’s put more attention toward making sure that the Earth sciences and their relevance to the human condition are taught, and taught well, throughout K-12 public education.

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1 Response to A politically resilient Weather/Climate Enterprise?

  1. Bill:-
    Yes, be useful. Hell, yes, to better education. But those won’t really make the enterprise more politically resilient.
    No, I think a better answer is – don’t make your science political. Stay out of policy-making. Once Science strays into that minefield, it becomes political and the science suffers.
    This AM, something on a political ad from Senator Warnock (D – GA) struck a chord:
    “When you’re hired to do a job, do the job you’re hired to do.” I always felt my job as a scientist was to provide the context for policy decisions, not to make policy. That meant telling policy makers:
    • what is known;

    • the limits of what is known;

    • the uncertainties around what is known; and

    • what the scientist thinks that means in terms of a trajectory (NOT what should be done).

    Policy makers (at least on a good day!) overlay their perceptions of non-scientific factors like goals, costs, what is possible and so on, to set policy. When we as scientists go there, we’re not doing the job we were hired to do. And we make ourselves and our science vulnerable to changing political winds.

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