Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise

For the past year or so (depending on whether you take a scoping phase or the first committee meeting to be the starting point), the National Academy of Sciences has been conducting a study on integrating social and behavioral sciences within the Weather Enterprise. Wednesday, November 1, the NAS released the findings and recommendations in an eponymous Report. It merits a careful read[1]. (Caution: for the definitive findings, conclusions, and the underlying logic, interested readers should consult the full Report itself. What’s here in LOTRW are merely a few personal reflections around the edges, starting with some thoughts about the timeliness and motivation for the study.)

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(Taking a step back) Do you self-identify as a member of the Weather Enterprise? Then you’re a major actor in helping seven billion people who aspire to live well on a generous, but dangerous and fragile planet. (Continuing the actor metaphor), you’re also on stage just as the Weather Enterprise itself is rapidly maturing in the process.

The Academy focuses on a big piece (but still only a single piece) of the Weather Enterprise role in the larger world drama. To oversimplify: merely forecasting the weather is all about observations, physics, and computation. Moving beyond that to saving lives and property, to building a Weather-Ready Nation, and to supporting impact-based decisions may superficially sound like a small step, but it’s more of a giant leap. As complicated as the Navier-Stokes equations may be, dealing with them is simple compared with dealing with another human being – or a crowd.

For most of the history of weather services, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, the utility of those services has been compromised primarily by the poor quality of the physical forecasts: their limited accuracy, time horizon, spatial resolution, etc. The challenge has resided in the realm of physical observation and science, mathematics, and computing technology.

Over the past twenty years, however, as physical forecasts have improved, the limiting factor has increasingly become the social part of the task. To be specific: engaging with individuals and institutions across sectors on all time scales – from urgent warnings themselves even out to years in advance (helping communities, local governments and decision makers balance policy-level reliance on evacuation against improved land use and building codes, siting and construction of critical infrastructure, and more).

You might have noticed this during media coverage of the 2017 fall hurricane season and the California wildfires. Often the headlines didn’t dwell on the quality of the forecasts as such. Instead they focused more on the human dilemma – individuals and families, emergency managers, local governments, and critical infrastructure providers making high-dollar, even life-and-death snap decisions – and doing all this under conditions of uncertainty. Time and again over the past three months, millions of Americans have been forced to reconcile a soup of often-conflicting information against their personal experience and larger concerns.

Throughout this past twenty years, it’s been clear that as individuals and a Nation, when it comes to such decisions and actions, we’ve been winging it, all too often in the process flying in the face of psychological, social, and economic realities as we’ve gone along. The result has been unnecessary loss, suffering, and community disruption. We can and should do better – on both sides of the Weather Enterprise-user interface. This starts with becoming as disciplined in our approach to social realities and the social science underlying them as we are with respect to physics of the atmosphere.

With this background, the NAS study charge makes sense. Here’s a condensed version:

Develop a framework for generating and applying social and behavioral science research within the context of meteorology, weather forecasting, and weather preparedness and response.

  • Assess current SBS activities and applications within the weather enterprise.
  • Describe the value of improved integration and identify barriers to better integration.
  • Develop a research agenda for advancing the application of social and behavioral sciences.
  • Identify infrastructural and institutional arrangements necessary to successfully pursue SBS weather research and the transfer of relevant findings to operational setting.

A bit on the findings and recommendations in a subsequent post. In the meantime, please give the full Report a look. Should also add in closing that the NAS and the committee gratefully acknowledge NOAA and Federal Highway Administration support for this study.

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[1]Full disclosure; Ann Bostrom and I co-chaired this study. The committee roster:

ANN BOSTROM (co-chair), University of Washington, Seattle

WILLIAM HOOKE (co-chair), American Meteorological Society

RAYMOND BAN, Ban and Associates

ELLEN BASS, Drexel University

DAVID BUDESCU, Fordham University

JULIE DEMUTH, National Center for Atmospheric Research

MICHAEL EILTS, Weather Decision Technologies, Inc.

CHARLES MANSKI, Northwestern University

RICHARD NELSON, AASHTO

YVETTE RICHARDSON, Pennsylvania State University

JACQUELINE SNELLING, FEMA

JOHN TOOHEY-MORALES, WTVJ NBC-6

JOSEPH TRAINOR, University of Delaware

Laurie Geller, a senior program officer at NAS was the study director – our adult supervision. It was a privilege to be in the room with this group!

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