“Nothing can be truly great which is not right.” – Samuel Johnson
Some twenty years ago, the Weather Enterprise – the aggregated collection of government agencies, private corporations large and small, and academic institutions providing weather observations, science, and services – acknowledged it had a fairness problem, and took a step towards equity.
Of a certain sort.
The inequity addressed at the time? The institutional interplay across the three sectors. Government saw a need for “benign” control of a public good – weather services, especially forecasts of weather threats to public safety. By contrast, the private sector saw years of “unfair and arbitrary” competition from the National Weather Service, especially relating to forecasts tailored for commercial use. Academics – depending on who viewed them – were either playing both sides or caught in the middle. Relations, although (usually) polite on the surface, had been strained for decades. Meanwhile, societal trends and technological advance were amplifying the problem. The private sector had been growing more capable – increasingly collecting observational data of commercial value, running global numerical models, engaging not just other companies but national governments abroad. Strain was giving way to dysfunction – threatening to compromise the quality of weather services and the pace of innovation at a moment in history when these two attributes were most needed.
The system was systemically unfair.
Matters have improved since then, even as change has accelerated. But today, in the year 2020, an age-old, much deeper, much more pernicious, much more pervasive set of injustices is troubling minds: systemically unequal respect for and treatment of individuals, based on their gender, sexual orientation, and many other factors, but especially – skin color. These inequities are common to, and threaded throughout, the fabric of life and work at every level, from the institutional to the interpersonal, in all three sectors: government, industry, and academia. And they’re not newcomers to the scene. Prejudice, especially racial prejudice, has worked its evils for centuries, perhaps the whole of human experience. The injustice – the oppression – scars society as a whole, in fact endangers the very idea of society. It is seemingly ineradicable, while at the same time it can no longer be tolerated. It must not be allowed to continue. By these lights, the concerns of two decades past affecting weather’s puny corner in human affairs, which had appeared so formidable at the time, today seem trivial, quaint.
To think that Weather Enterprise conversation of the past two decades might be scaled up in some way as to address the larger equity problem would be trivialize the differences in scale and the gravity of the moral challenge – blasphemously so. But at the same time, the Weather Enterprise doesn’t get a pass, doesn’t get to somehow sit in judgment at some 10,000-foot altitude above on-the-ground realities confronting the larger society. Through complacency and sometimes much worse, we have contributed our share to the current problems. Our community finds itself at ground level, submersed in the same evil muck that has mired the larger world. We must accordingly do our part – locally, individually – improve upon the current situation.
All of which raises questions.
Is it possible, even if just barely so, that the philosophy and approach used over the past two decades by the Weather Enterprise to deal with the former unfairness could be recast to be of some small help here? Is it possible that meteorologists could take small steps that might promote inter-racial fairness in our corner of things – within and across the three sectors? And if so, what might that look like?
To develop insights, it is first necessary to review what happened back then.
In 2003, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) published a study, entitled Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services, addressing the problem. John A. Armstrong, retired from IBM, a physicist with no significant prior association with the meteorological world, chaired the committee. He had this to say in the study’s preface:
Over the last four decades the provision of weather and climate services in the United States has evolved from an almost exclusively governmental function to one carried out by a combination of federal, state, and local government agencies (referred to collectively as the public sector), the private sector, and academia. This change has improved and diversified weather and climate services, but has also raised questions about the proper roles of the various sectors and the potential for actual or perceived competition. A recent National Research Council report discussed the roles of the public, academic, and private sectors in a broad range of environmental disciplines (including weather), and proposed guidelines for purchasing data and products for public purposes, dealing with data restrictions, and privatizing government functions. This report focuses on the provision of civilian weather and climate services, barriers to communication among the sectors, and opportunities for improving the effectiveness of the weather and climate enterprise.
The committee’s report concluded, importantly, that it is counterproductive and diversionary to establish detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can do what and with which tools. Instead, efforts should focus on improving the processes by which the public and private providers of weather services interact. Improving these processes would also help alleviate the misunderstanding and suspicion that exist between some members of the sectors. However, there is no “magic bullet” that will bring “fair weather” to the partnership. The recommendations below are first steps on a journey that will take time, effort, and persistence to complete.
Their report went on to make recommendations in that spirit, beginning with three focused on strengthening the partnership per se:
- The NWS should replace its 1991 public-private partnership policy with a policy that defines processes for making decisions on products, technologies, and services, rather than rigidly defining the roles of the NWS and the private sector.
- The NWS should establish an independent advisory committee to provide ongoing advice to it on weather and climate matters.
- The NWS and relevant academic, state, and private organizations should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic dedicated venue for the weather enterprise as a whole to discuss issues related to the public-private partnership.
This last was carefully worded, and should be interpreted with corresponding care. To start, the committee went beyond a generic recommendation to the point of mention of the AMS by name, if only as an example. Though not without precedent, this is unusual in NASEM studies; it’s not done casually. Credit the AMS: thanks to Keith Seitter (AMS Executive Director at the time and still today), and to the volunteer leadership of the AMS at the time and across the years since, the Society acted with vigor on this recommendation. Equally important was the manner of the implementation. All parties recognized that strengthening the partnership was the fundamental work of the partners themselves. The AMS wasn’t being set up as any kind of arbiter; instead, its function was simply to make effective conversation among the partners possible. The AMS accomplished this by working that conversation through everything it had been doing all along: the journal publications, starting with the Bulletin, the Annual Meeting and specialty conferences, the AMS Washington Forum, and more. It also took additional measures: it created a new Enterprise Commission, and a new Summer Community Meeting, designed specifically for extended community-level thought on equity in the partnership.
A second piece mattered equally. The three sectors of what today is called the Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise not only initiated the needed conversations, but (with AMS help) also ensured those conversations were sustained. That has proved vital. The discussions of the early years were awkward, even raw; it would have been tempting to walk away from the fledgling effort. But over time, the relationships warmed; a degree of trust began to develop, replacing the preexisting suspicions, misgivings, general wariness. Only because the conversations have persisted can all participants say today that the conversations are worth the time and effort. In the same way, the conversations have mattered only because the conversants used them to evolve in thought and action. The main actors have changed not just behavior but their basic nature, and in the process achieved better, more equitable outcomes.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been threaded through the conversation on these occasions. These concerns may at first have entered as an aside, but have been moving toward center stage for some time – since before the current crisis stage. The AMS was speaking of the need for diversity in its 2007 articulation of strategic goals (Bulletin of the AMS, March 2007, 45 Beacon section), as seen in these excerpts from Goals 4 and 5:
Goal 4. To create a more scientifically literate population: … These efforts contribute significantly toward drawing young people, especially women and minorities, into the sciences in general, and into the sciences served by the AMS in particular.
Goal 5. To attract highly talented and committed people into the professions served by the AMS: The health of the professions served by the Society depends on our ability to attract highly talented and committed people to our field, a challenge brought about by changes in the U.S. demographics and affecting all areas of science, technology, and education. The AMS is committed to increasing its efforts in educating and recruiting young scientists and engineers, especially from the traditionally underrepresented groups of women and minorities.
These points were articulated more strongly in a 2019 Centennial update to the AMS strategic goals. That update takes a set of core values as a starting point, including the belief that: a diverse, inclusive, and respectful community is essential for our science. The reformulated strategic goals include this:
To cultivate a talented, diverse, and enthusiastic workforce in the professions served by the AMS. Despite progress in recent years, the professions served by AMS do not fully reflect our nation’s increasing diversity. The evolving nature of weather, water, and climate science, and of the skills needed to excel in these realms, highlights the importance of cultivating a workforce appropriate for tomorrow’s needs. The AMS must foster a vibrant, highly skilled, and diverse workforce through career development activities, educational programs, mentoring and networking opportunities, and inclusive policies and practices.
The thinking is encapsulated by an AMS Diversity Statement:
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) is committed to, and benefits from the full and equitable participation of a diverse community in its membership, in its activities, and in the audiences that it serves. The advancement of the AMS mission is dependent on its ability to have a professional membership that is fully representative of societal demographics. The Society, therefore, embraces diversity through the inclusion of individuals across age, gender, race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, physical ability, marital status, sexual orientation, body shape or size, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic status, and other facets of social diversity.
All well and good, but intentions are not enough. What will actually happen? What can and will the AMS do to reduce systemic inequality? As a start the AMS is standing up a Culture and Inclusion Cabinet, under the leadership of Melissa Burt. The intent is that the Cabinet will drive the needed change across the full extent of AMS membership and activities.
This cannot succeed if rank-and-file AMS members like you and me regard ourselves as spectators passively watching the actions of a small group of participants. We all will have to play a part.
The next LOTRW post will examine an (imperfect) parallel to give a feel for the enormity of the challenge. The post following will suggest a simple initial step we might all take in the needed direction.
 Subsequent recommendations were targeted at the sectors respectively, and merit a read (and periodic re-reads), but are not the emphasis here.