A summer-of-2000 conversation with my then-new boss, Ron McPherson at the AMS: “Brother Hooke, I don’t know exactly what you’ll do for us here. But one thing I do know. You’re going to start and then run the AMS Summer Policy Colloquium.”
“Ok, Ron, but just what is that exactly?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what you’re going to do.”
Not familiar with these? Check out the above website for background, including a list of topics. Every year NCAR’s Advanced Study Program offers a two-week session, designed for graduate students, on a theme so new or rapidly developing that good course material may not be available. Can’t remember which year and subject matter brought Ron to Boulder, but to this day he’ll tell you that it transformed his life and his career trajectory. And it wasn’t just the Colloquium content! It was also the people he met there. Over 40 years of such programs, with maybe 25 graduate students every year, each of them remembering the experience like Ron? You know it’s given a huge boost to our science – helped make us the community we are today, and enhanced our payoff to society.
By the year 2000, the problem and the vision that preoccupied Ron (and others at the AMS) was both similar and different – the need to develop and equip future leaders in our field.
The challenge here was one part demographics and one part social change. The demographics bit? World War II had brought with it many military demands – one of which was a need for better weather support, especially for naval and air operations. These ranged from day-to-day mission support at stations all over the world to some truly important single forecasts, such as the weather and tide conditions expected for D-Day at Normandy, or the weather prevailing for the Enola Gay bombing mission over Hiroshima. Training and education at institutions like MIT and NYU produced the needed cohort of meteorologists.
After the war’s end, many stayed on in our field. They rose to senior positions even as the organizations where they worked grew in size and importance…and they stayed in those leadership positions – at the Weather Bureau/National Weather Service, ESSA/NOAA, NASA, NSF, EPA, and in the universities – a long time.
In retrospect, perhaps a little too long. The continuity of leadership was good in one way, but meant that the meteorologists who came behind the World-War II group found those leadership positions encumbered. Beginning in the late 1980’s a wave of retirements created a series of less-than-smooth transitions as the selection process for replacements had to skip an entire generation. The people being put into many of the top positions, with major responsibilities, hadn’t had a chance to hone their skills at intermediate levels.
These strains occurred even as rapid social change was transforming the demands faced by scientist leaders. Funding for science? Growing rapidly. Politicians were seeing the link between science and technology and the economic prospects for a state or a nation. The findings of science? Raising stronger concerns about the environment, ecosystems – sustainability. Politics and science, and policy and science, if ever separate, were no longer. Instead they found themselves thoroughly entangled. Globalization of the world’s economy, population increase and urbanization, the emergence of agribusiness and renewable energy, and redistribution of wealth made the task of putting science to work for societal benefit increasingly complex…and, at the same time, more urgent.
Government agencies continued to train employees at executive seminar centers and the Federal Executive Institute, but increasingly the training had to focus on what might be called the tactics of leadership – the budget process, project management, HR issues, meeting a growing body of legal requirements – as opposed to the strategic dimensions. In a nutshell, the focus was on doing things right – not doing the right things. And the need for leaders extended far beyond government, to include academia and the private sector.
Those government executive seminar centers, and the Federal Executive Institute? I’ll always be grateful to NOAA for many things, but giving me some of those training experiences is near the top of the list. On those occasions I learned about the interface between career government executives and the political appointees who are in charge, about the links between environment and natural resource issues, and science and public policy. But I also got to meet a lot of my fellow federal executives, from the full spectrum of agencies.
The experience made me proud to be a federal employee. Prior to that time, I was proud of my laboratory, in my agency, but I’d bought into a stereotype about federal workers – a stereotype almost as pernicious as biases based on ethnicity or gender. That’s the view that federal employees are somehow less capable, or high-minded, or intelligent or energetic than their private-sector or academic counterparts. The people I met at the centers and at FEI were as bright as anyone anywhere…and they were all motivated by one goal: to make the United States and the world a better place.
And the instructors were brilliant! They knew their stuff, and they presented it in a compelling way. They commanded our respect. And they came back to these training facilities, again, and again, for hardly any pay. Why? Because, as more than one of them shared with me, they found this audience of federal managers, leaders-to-be, intelligent, and stimulating – a source of ideas. They loved the questions we asked.
In further conversations, Ron McPherson, Dick Hallgren, Dick Greenfield and I began to think we could replicate this atmosphere at AMS.
More in the next post.