“Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.” Proverbs 27:2 (NIV)
These are troubled times for U.S meteorology, and for U.S. meteorologists. There’s a full litany of woes. Vital weather-satellite programs are behind schedule, over budget, and face future funding uncertainty as well as possible disruptions and gaps in service. Critics fault U.S. operational numerical weather prediction, comparing it unfavorably with European performance. [The boo-birds are equal-opportunity; they cite greater European investment in computers, in professional staff, even in leadership. No U.S. participant escapes blame.] Understaffed NWS offices contend with furloughs and, most recently, hiring freezes. Travel restrictions impair the very collaborations that might improve matters. Government unions are twitchy. So are the private-sector service providers; the major aerospace firms that build the radars, satellites, ground systems and other hardware; and the university researchers finding government grants hard to come by and short-changed by the sequestration.
The social fabric weaving these partners together is fraying under the strain; there’s a temptation for the partners to abandon one another and “look out for number one.” This can take any of several forms. NWSEO can grow frustrated with the NWS. Academics and/or the corporate leaders become impatient with their government counterparts. Weather-, climate-, and hydrological interests, who in better times make natural allies, decide they can achieve more favorable outcomes on their own. [Climate-change is too contentious; water really comes under weather; hazards can be better framed as climate adaptation…these other ideas are holding us back…]
It’s tempting and natural in the face of such painful, acute crises to look for quick fixes and shortcuts. One favorite lure: “stronger advocacy.” [The existing players and entities aren’t getting the job done. We need to make a better case for ourselves. We have to develop a single message. We’ve got to be more visible on the Hill. Everyone else is… the healthcare lobbyists, oil interests, financial-sector advocates… even the physicists, the astronomers, the oceanographers, the chemists…If we don’t do the same they’ll eat from our rice bowl.]
In the history of advocacy sometimes the second part of this logic has been to create a new group, a new association, a fresh commission, yet another coalition or alliance. Occasionally such an approach may succeed; but it has been found to carry risks. One is the danger of creating yet another fragile organization to compete for and share finite resources… both funding and people… with the pre-existing groups. In the end, none is robust; all are malnourished. Here’s another: effort that could be spent making the desired case is redirected to standing up the new organization. What’s more: often the new group doesn’t succeed in getting the larger community to subscribe to a single message so much as it adds an additional voice to the larger babble. And the inescapable reality remains. The meteorological community adds up to some tens of thousands of scientists and engineers who build Earth observing capacity, advance science, and perform services, and a comparable number of experts who translate those services and products into valuable information for the American public. By way of comparison, consider the AARP. AARP has a million members…in Virginia alone. AARP holds unrestricted net assets amounting to some $3 billion. When it comes to advocacy, as measured in traditional terms of who yells the loudest and carries the greatest clout, big organizations such as the AARP carry the advantage…just as the odds favor not necessarily the smartest poker players but those who come to the table with the biggest bankroll.
Given such realities, it might be useful for our community to go back to first principles. Let’s start with the definition. Advocacy means to “speak in support of an idea or cause.” And Proverbs 27:2 makes clear what we all know in our gut: advocacy is far more effective and compelling when outsiders speak on our behalf. And many of the beneficiaries of Earth observations, science, and services are the bigger, high-clout communities. They can speak with a booming voice, even by Capitol Hill standards: Agribusiness. Energy. Aviation and surface transportation. Water. National security. Property and casualty insurance. Public health. In short, all those sectors enumerated around the periphery of the 1920 AMS seal, and then some:
But “first principles” doesn’t mean simply asking such user groups for help. Most likely that’ll produce only a tepid response. It means taking the time needed to build understanding and a relationship of trust…and then working together to identify:
(1) our customer/user needs matched against our community capabilities and limitations,
(2) the return-on-investment (ROI)… that is, the economic value and the non-monetizable benefits of our contributions, both private- and public, and
(3) how that ROI might be expanded and improved
Then the big-time advocates have something to work with.
The individuals who make up our community, and the individual companies, universities, and agencies they serve know this. The American Meteorological Society shares such aims. That’s why all three sectors have worked together the last 10-15 of our 94 years to build an infrastructure… through the AMS Policy Program and the Weather and Climate Enterprise… toward this end. We’ve conducted a preliminary workshop on the value of 21st-Century Earth Observations, Science, and Services. We’ve had exploratory looks at energy, water resources, space weather, healthcare continuity in the face of hazards, road weather, and other topics. We’ve woven the findings of these workshops into Hill briefings and into the AMS conversation that cycles through each year’s AMS Annual Meeting, AMS Washington Forum, and AMS Summer Community Meeting. The pace has been slower than any of us would like because of staffing constraints in the Policy Program and challenges standing up an Enterprise-wide coordination that could keep public-, private-, and academic sectors fully and fairly engaged.
But thanks to recent staff additions at the AMS Policy Program and the hard work of the volunteer leadership of the Enterprise Commission over the past decade we’re finally in a position to take advantage of the foundation we’ve so painstakingly built.
At the same time, the academic community, the American weather industry, and other partners have laid the groundwork for an advocacy group…the Weather Coalition… that itself has a track record and could well be expanded and strengthened.
Today’s crisis atmosphere might tempt some to abandon these efforts and seek new short cuts to our long-term goals. It might well be in our interest to seek the establishment of a Congressional Commission analogous to the Oceans Commission of a few years back. That would be a truly independent step.
But at a minimum, in parallel with any such new starts, we should double-down on, and sustain, our investment in the long-term work of the AMS and the Weather Coalition… funding and executing the needed sector-by-sector workshops, steadily building national appreciation for Earth observations, science, and services as critical infrastructure, and in that way equipping and motivating others to make that case to our national leadership and the American public...
…on our behalf and in public interest.