NOAA’s relevant today, but perhaps no longer so dominant.

Yesterday’s post asked the question, “Is NOAA as relevant today as it was fifteen or twenty years earlier?” and answered in the affirmative.

But that answer contained a rhetorical sleight of hand – or at the least a bit of an oversimplification. In several ways, NOAA’s role is different today than it had been in the early 1990’s.

For one, NOAA climate modeling, as undertaken at its Princeton Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, had few if any peers back then. Today, numerous groups the world over are running state-of-the-art climate models. Scientists might be hard put to declare an overall favorite.

Here’s another: climate services. At the February 16th NOAA rollout of the President’s FY2012 budget, Under Secretary Lubchenco discussed the status of NOAA efforts to establish a Climate Service. The work is coming along! But other federal agencies offer suites of climate services as well. So do other nations. And the market potential for specialized climate predictions – to serve the energy sector, or agribusiness, or transportation – is attracting a number of private-sector firms, including some rather large ones.

In fact, there’s even enough of a market for climate observations to attract the private sector. Consider the bold step just taken by AWS Convergence Technologies. Under the leadership of their president and CEO, Robert Marshall, and in partnership with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they are deploying and operating a global greenhouse gas network – and have changed their name to Earth Networks.

In these and other respects NOAA no longer has the field to itself – if it ever did. The landscape is dotted with partners and competitors. But that doesn’t mean that NOAA today is less relevant. Want to see how and why this is so? Let’s start by standing back just a bit, and looking at the larger picture.

In fact, NOAA’s changing situation over the past two decades mirrors the changing fortunes and place of the United States itself in the world. Go back to 1989. That year not only saw the Exxon Valdez oil spill but also the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, over the next few years, communist government collapsed in country after country.

This failure of communism was pervasive – prompting Francis Fukuyama to write his famous 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that history is about the competition of ideas, and with the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, there was no longer any competition. Capitalism and free-market ideas held wholly uncontested sway. For a period, historians and policy analysts noted the unique place of the United States in the world – supreme militarily, politically, and economically. They wondered aloud how the United States might fare – whether other nations would chafe under U.S. hegemony, and how Americans and their leaders would handle their new role.

So, the United States was at the top of the heap in the early 1990’s. Yet, arguably, it is more relevant than ever today.

How can we say that? Just look at the negatives! Today, less than two decades later, the United States finds itself both a nation of individual debtors, and a debtor as a nation, struggling to recover from decades of an unfavorable balance of payments, and an insidious growth of entitlements and interest on the national debt as a fraction of federal expenditures. China, and to some extent India, are on the ascendancy, with competing economic models and ideas on democracy and governance. Some argue that were our currency not the de facto global standard, we might already be struggling with creditors along with the likes of Ireland and Greece. We’re embroiled in turmoil across the Middle East. We’re “United” in name, but increasingly polarized here at home.

But despite these vicissitudes, the United States, if anything, is more relevant today than back in the 1990’s. Think about it. We and the world face some serious challenges, perhaps not unprecedented, but nevertheless daunting. We have globalized trade; can we develop the needed globalized rule book? We have a small minority of rich and super-rich embedded in poverty; can we develop a large, robust middle class in time to avoid widespread geopolitical instability? To develop and maintain a high quality of life and health over the rest of this century, we have to institutionalize a culture of innovation, public education, and (this is the tough one) collaboration. Is it possible for the world’s peoples to do this, and to maintain a rich diversity of national identities and ethnic cultures? How are we to accomplish these ends? The fact of the matter is that the United States as a nation, and as an aggregate of 300 million people, is relevant – indeed crucial – to these aspirations. If we play our role, and reach out and partner with other nations, the world as a whole likely will prosper, and the future is bright. If we abdicate our responsibilities, and withdraw into ourselves, the global challenge becomes that much more difficult.

Now it’s easy to see the current NOAA role for what it is, isn’t it? For NOAA to be relevant today, and tomorrow, and fifteen years from now, it must continue to be strong in science and service, but the real key is its ability to look outward – and reach outward. To do this, NOAA must master an additional, entirely different set of skills, of the social-science variety. More about all that in the next post.

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