“What are your priorities?”
Earlier today, a Senate staffer asked this question of attendees at the American Meteorological Society Summer Community Meeting. Actually, he went on to say this wasn’t just his question. He’d done his homework. He’d asked his Hill colleagues what they’d like most to hear from AMS and its members. In light of the budget constraints imposed by the debt ceiling settlement and the prospect of a double-dip recession this was their choice.
In the audience? A rather diverse group, actually. Some worked for aerospace firms building weather- and other environmental satellites. Some were government executives. Others ran corporations providing weather services. Still others were university research faculty and administrators. Lobbyists, policy analysts, wind-energy engineers, employees of multi-national instrument companies, and operators of surface meteorological observing networks – all were present.
And the folks at the Summer Community Meeting are thinking through the answer. Not in any sort of organized, monolithic, top-down, command-and-control way…that’s not what this group is about. Rather in a collegial, brainstorming way – a search for ideas.
Fact is, there’s no shortage of candidates. To start, you could make a case for the big-ticket items – the satellite programs. The community needs those…and if they were funded at healthy levels, the community might possibly be able to sort out a number of the remaining, smaller, issues on its own.
But we need those surface networks of instruments as well. And then the modelers spoke to their models and to computer simulation of the performance of observing systems. Researchers emphasized the fragile nature of research and the need to ensure that their prospects weren’t trampled-on in the search for funds and programs to cut. Economists pointed out, with some force, that if economic justification was needed to preserve programs of Earth observation, science, and services, then we ought to be investing a great deal more in economic analysis. Moreover, they said, these funds must come from the Earth sciences. The economists have plenty of funding to apply their expertise in other directions.
And in the background, throughout this discussion of the substance, there was conversation on the marketing. Some argued for telling compelling stories that target the gut – stories of life and death in the face of weather hazards. After this spring, there are plenty of those out there! Others argued for more-credible cost-benefit analysis than meteorologists have provided to date. They reminded us that OMB has been asking for such analysis for some time. Still others spoke to the need for more of both narrative and macro-economic study.
Every one of these arguments has merit. Yet our community is being asked to choose – to pick a small handful of these for early attention, and postpone the others.
There’s no question that in the budget-constrained, recession economy we find ourselves that choices will be necessary. And if we don’t make them ourselves, and soon, others – more disinterested, and likely less discerning, will make these choices for us.
That said, there are still reasons to go slow. In the immediate event, the AMS Summer Community Meeting is not constituted to reach any binding agreement on priorities. But even if it were, choices of this type tend to be divisive – to tear community down instead of build it, to polarize.
Polarize? Maybe it’s just me, but are you thinking the world’s peoples and leaders might be polarized more than enough already?
Is there an alternative? What does it look like?
There is indeed an alternative. It takes two forms.
The first has to do with where we put our focus. Instead of paying attention to our community of Earth scientists, instrument builders and service providers, we could put the emphasis on the society we’re trying to serve. What is the greatest need? Is it public safety in the face of hazards? Earth science harnessed in service to the economy? Protection of the environment and ecosystems? Geopolitical stability? The AMS logo comes at it a different way, speaking to improvements in aerial and marine navigation, industry, agriculture, commerce, engineering, and public health. We should put societal benefit as our greatest priority.
The second has to do with recognizing the need for balance versus zero-sum. Stephen Covey talks about this in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He maintains that we should not just seek win-win, but insist on it. He says we should never walk away from an issue until all parties can gain something. So go back to those areas of application on the AMS logo. Suppose we were to pick one of those – say agriculture – as our uppermost goal. That would be well and fine for the agricultural meteorologists. But when they cast about seeking jump increases in their labor force, they’d discover that those aviation meteorologists would most likely make the greatest contribution to society in the least amount of time if they were allowed to realize their vision for aviation weather, rather than try to retool and work the agricultural problem. And so on. Maybe far better to spread the resources (and the initial priority) around, then use the revenues building up to train a few more agricultural meteorologists than we’d been doing.
Let’s close today with this quote, from Eric Hoffer, dealing with both priorities and necessities:
“The necessary has never been man’s top priority. The passionate pursuit of the nonessential and the extravagant is one of the chief traits of human uniqueness. Unlike other forms of life, man’s greatest exertions are made in the pursuit not of necessities but of superfluities.”
Hoffer’s message for us today? That we forsake our age-old bad habit, and make the necessary our top priority – maybe for the first time in history.
What’s necessary? Mastering our three-faceted relationship with the Earth as resource, victim, and threat.
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