Times are turbulent, and the future murky. The winds of change howl across the whole of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The world’s economy is in a parlous state – seemingly on the mend after the 2008 meltdown, but still fragile by many measures. New global actors challenge the United States for economic and political supremacy. Here at home, members of the Congress find little to like in each others’ words and ideas. On the surface at least, America’s public looks to be hopelessly polarized.
How can NOAA, or any federal agency for that matter, find the path to continuing relevancy all the way through to 2026, given the confusion and clamor of society today? How can NOAA garner public support for its work? The funding and resources it needs to do its job? The attention due its knowledge and understanding; its products and services?
No one knows the answer to these questions to any certainty. But here are some notions that would seem to apply.
Let’s start with a few ideas of how not to proceed.
Bellow. Foremost among these is the idea that in today’s noise, it is important to yell the loudest, and to yell in absolute unison, in order to be heard above the general din. Perhaps this approach might work for the one or two constituencies who have the largest majority, and the simplest case to make [maybe two reasons why it’s the approach of choice right now in the Middle East]. It certainly isn’t going to work for subtle natural resource or environmental issues, when competing against jobs, health care, foreign policy, and other issues. Advocacy, at least advocacy as usually defined, is out. NOAA and its stakeholders might wisely yield this field to the big lobbying firms.
Complain. We’ve all heard it said, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This approach is being tried, by the way, by unionized state workers in Wisconsin. It is chancy at best. It’s very difficult for bystanders to tell the difference between legitimate grievances and carping. And when things are tough all over, whining doesn’t work so well, does it? It’s hardly endearing, and can readily backfire.
Play the fear card. This one is popular in the environmental arena. We warn of despoiled landscapes, species extinction, polluted drinking water, fouled air, global warming. All these consequences of inattention to our issue are very real. Problem is, our hearers are already worried – about unemployment, rising health care costs, the high price of gasoline, war in the Mideast, and on and on. They’re maxed out on stress, experiencing sensory overload.
Intimidate. There is a range of possibilities here. At one end of the scale, we see idle threats. People quickly see through these. In these angry times, they call our bluff. At the other end, we see real threats, backed by the power and the will to follow through. Back in school, we called these people bullies. We may have yielded to their desires short term, but we spent every waking hour waiting until their back was turned, or their guard down, and exacted revenge. The grown-up version doesn’t work much different. Threats exchange temporary gain for comeuppance downstream.
Ouch! So what might work?
Here are some ideas.
Speak the hearers’ language. No, not French or Japanese versus English, but the idea is the same. After a little time together, husbands and wives generally find that certain phrases or words are out of bounds. Want to get a head start toward divorce court? Stand on your right to use those words! Keep revisiting those sore points! Want a marriage that will be a paradise beyond describing? A source of joy that grows and grows? Just give those few phrases a rest. Move on. [Remember the garden of Eden? All those trees and fruits available to the happy couple? Only one tree posed a problem. So what did Adam and Eve do? We have this age-old story for a reason.]
So, you find yourself with an environmentalist? Go ahead, speak of sustainability. It’s safe. Are you with a free-market capitalist? Go ahead, talk of profit. In doing both, you haven’t made any kind of profound compromise. You’re not talking out of both sides of your mouth. You’re simply bilingual.
Listen. What concerns the person or group or audience you’re with? Why does this matter to them? What’s amiss, from their point of view? Do they have solutions in mind?
Do this to start, and maybe you’ll be able to…
Provide actual help. This sure beats being desperate to communicate your own problems, making sure they see how pitiful you are. [Don’t ask me why, but this picture comes to mind a lot. Imagine the gun turret on a battleship in World War II. The guns are pounding a distant beach or an enemy ship. Orders are coming down from the bridge about range and bearing. Suppose the sailors in the gun turret, instead of firing, were to respond along the lines of “The noise and vibration are deafening here! The heat is sweltering! We can barely see what we’re doing. All these high explosives; this is dangerous! We’re tired!”]
Emphasize the next big idea, what lies ahead. Those of us dealing with the Earth as resource, victim, and threat often find ourselves with people who aren’t following what we’re saying, or maybe even vehemently disagreeing with us. Our overwhelming urge is to keep explaining ourselves and our science again and again, over and over. [My communication colleague tells me this is called the deficit model of science understanding.] We can’t afford to get hung up this way! We need instead to move on, start talking about the next exciting or interesting scrap of knowledge and understanding, keep going forward. Those around us may not get all or even much of it, but they’ll find our passion and energy infectious – and they’ll match it.
Have a long-range goal, and keep a steady focus on what matters. Every force in our world tempts us to react to the urgent and to take care of the mundane versus take time to be thoughtful, think through what’s important, and give that priority. Reject that invitation! Develop a larger view, and work it.
Don’t focus too narrowly on Capitol Hill, and legislators, people who control only the pursestrings. Instead, look outward, to the world’s real players. The general public. Agribusiness. Big oil. Electrical utilities. The transportation sector. Water managers. The world’s defense ministries and security agencies. And still others. Believe me. They understand their vulnerabilities to environmental factors. At all locations, and globally. On the short term, and on time horizons extending out decades. If you have knowledge and understanding, and products and services to offer, they’ll recognize your value! Let these influential voices speak for you and help get you the resources you need.
Get the idea? Do these few notions sound like they might work? Do they prompt you to come up with your own, additional approaches, or a superior set of substitute ideas? Brilliant. Let NOAA’s leaders and managers; bench scientists, and forecasters have at it.
Before you know it, NOAA will prove as relevant in 2026 as it is today.