Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise. Part 2. Findings and Recommendations.

Okay, Bill. The previous LOTRW post introduced us to this NAS report and the motivations behind it. We see the need. But what does it mean to become “as disciplined in our approach to social realities and the social science underlying them as we are with respect to physics of the atmosphere?” And what did the Committee find, recommend?

Doesn’t make sense to repeat in detail all the findings of the fuller Report, but here’s a sampling that gives the flavor:

  • Innovative SBS research activities have already contributed both to the social and behavioral sciences and to meteorology. Exciting opportunities exist for advancing this research to address important societal needs.
  • Existing federal agency data collection activities could, with modest additions and greater interagency coordination, significantly expand our understanding of the social context of hazardous weather.
  • The accumulation of knowledge has been hampered by the relatively small scale, intermittency, and inconsistency of investments. [Emphasis added.]
  • Meteorologists and others in the weather enterprise need a more realistic understanding of:
    • the diverse disciplines, theories, research methodologies used within SBS;
    • the time and resources needed for robust SBS research; and
    • the inherent limitations in providing simple, universally applicable answers to complex social science questions.
  • Organizations across the weather enterprise—federal agencies, private sector weather companies, academic institutions, professional societies—have shared motivations for actively contributing to the integration of SBS within the weather enterprise.
  • Numerous previous reports going back many years have highlighted needs and challenges similar to those noted here—yet many of the same challenges remain today. Overcoming these challenges and making progress is not idea limited, but rather, is resource limited.

To my mind, and this is a personal view – not necessarily the view of the Committee or the NAS (or the AMS for that matter) – the highlighted finding is pivotal. Increasing numbers of early-career scientists from both the meteorological side and the social-science side have been drawn to the interface of weather and social science in recent years. They’re attracted by the room for scientific discovery, and by the huge potential for societal benefit. A wonderfully innovative program – WAS*IS – introduced scores to the opportunity, not just in the United States, but across the world. But funding for work at this interface has amounted to no more than “sales tax” compared with funding for meteorology per se. That by itself wouldn’t be a showstopper (social science doesn’t require expensive platforms such as satellites and radar for its observations). The real barrier has been the intermittency of the funding to date. Young scientists can’t see the stability needed for sustained pursuit of a line of inquiry and/or to launch a career, or the critical mass/framework for such research that would be necessary to tackle the larger, more significant problems facing the field. These scientists have demonstrated the passion and the vision[1], but lack the means. Sooner or later, most are being allowed or forced to drift into different fields or research and application.

The Report’s recommendations – boiled down/synthesized to three, with a connecting logic captured in the diagram below – pick up on this:

(Working backwards through the diagram, and with great over-simplification), the idea is that to build community-level resilience to weather hazards across the Nation and the world, research is needed on a wide range of critical knowledge gaps (spelled-out in detail in the Report). But that work can’t be accomplished in a timely manner without a much more robust capacity and corresponding framework spanning the Weather Enterprise in place to support and then use such SBS research. The needed infrastructure just isn’t there. (Still working backward), this brings us to the starting point; the need for leadership across the Weather Enterprise (and indeed in the larger society) that sees such work as foundational to “the protection of lives and property in the face of weather hazards,” articulates such a vision in full throat, and follows through with sustained allocation of resources and commitment.

Some of this might sound a bit general, so let’s drill down on the middle step – building the needed capacity and infrastructure. How might leaders, if they so desired, make their investments? What are some of their options? Again, synthesized from the Report, these include but are not limited to:

  • Create an interdisciplinary research program supported by NOAA and NSF for support of larger-scale proposals.
  • Establish a NOAA/OAR Laboratory or Cooperative Institute dedicated to SBS-weather research.
  • Develop strong social science programs within one or more existing NOAA Cooperative Institutes.
  • Build more connections between NWS Weather Forecast Offices and SBS-related campus departments.
  • Develop a UCAR-based program, operating in a distributed fashion across some or all of the member campuses.
  • Strengthen SBS research capacity at an existing FFRDC (like UCAR/NCAR), or establish a new FFRDC focused specifically on the application of social sciences.
  • Establish a Center of Excellence as a mechanism to directly link research to operational actors.

Hardly exhaustive, but demonstrating a range of feasible possibilities. Note that we’re not talking about either/or here; each of these options has strengths and shortcomings, especially if taken in isolation.

Okay, Bill, a lot to ponder. But what’s up with that Report chapter on Road Weather?

Good question! Some people might consider that an aside – but they’d be wrong. It adds a pivotal new dimension to the research challenge and to the potential for societal benefit. More on that in a subsequent post.


[1]WAS*IS is a case in point. After a promising start, it lost its funding. Despite that, the community of practice remains active and engaged.

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