NOAA and its people look to the future on Martin Luther King Day

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Friday the President’s remarks on streamlining government focused on the economic agencies. But they also signaled his intent to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from its current home in the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior. The idea offers much to like but also raises concerns. Both are being expressed these days. How do you feel? Do you find yourself conflicted? That’s probably a sign of mental health.

It turns out that Martin Luther King, Jr., who worked throughout his life to improve the human condition, and whose life and accomplishments we celebrate today, had views pertinent to these challenges. His thoughts offer encouragement as you and I return to work on Tuesday morning.

Let’s start with the quote above. Dr. King reminds us that humanity’s goal is progress. It’s not simply cutting costs. If we’re doing something worthwhile, it pays to do it effectively. If we’re doing something wrongheaded, all the efficiencies in the world won’t help much. So the starting point for the administration and the Congress, for the country and the world, is this:

Are NOAA and its private-sector partners, and the community of academics and NGO’s, all those men and women and institutions collaborating with them…are they advancing our comprehension of the Earth as a resource, a victim, and a threat? And are they helping us put this understanding to good use for enduring social benefit? Are these the right problems for the country to address?

Yes.  

That suggests those responsible for the national agenda should focus on additional questions such as these: do our policies, legislation, speeches and actions foster or hinder the needed progress? Will we make our critical decisions on natural resources, the environment, and hazards wisely? In time? What risks lie ahead? What level of investment does this work merit and require, and how do we know? Arguably, our leaders should know any particular organizational location for NOAA in the end will matter little. They need to focus instead on NOAA’s relation with its partners, collaborators, and users, and the nation’s investment in this work. Is the Nation providing the sustained, uninterrupted support needed for satellites and their ground systems? For a modernized weather radar network? Are we protecting our seed corn – research – as well as maintaining the continuity of today’s services? Are we educating the young professionals we need for tomorrow’s work?

All this suggests that those favoring an administrative relocation of NOAA should remember any such shift has no value as a goal in itself. It’s at best an incidental means to a larger end. In the same spirit, those opposing a relocation shouldn’t be allowed to cast pending or real organizational change as any kind of huge obstacle. They shouldn’t use it as a pretext for slowing progress on the real issues.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Hmm. Profound. But you know what? Our nation’s military leaders would be the first to agree with him. Time and again, in venue after venue, they speak to the links they see connecting geopolitical stability, poverty, and environmental issues. They emphasize that U.S. commitment to addressing the latter two challenges will reduce the risk of and need for armed conflict. It’s no accident that the Marshall Plan, a major international program of social uplift and one of the greatest United States legacies of the 20th century, was promoted by our country’s leading military figure of the time. And it’s no surprise that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for this work (an honor Martin Luther King would receive a brief decade later). Again, leaders shouldn’t fantasize that a relocated NOAA will be a less expensive NOAA. 21st century imperatives will be driving up these investments as a fraction of GDP. The good news? Such investments are not only cheaper than the military alternatives; they’ll more than repay their cost.

“A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

The biggest risk posed by any federal reorganization is that it will distract all involved, both men and women, both inside and outside the affected agencies, from the real task at hand – sustainable development that deftly taps Earth’s resources, protects the environment, and provides for public safety (as framed in part by all those agency missions and the national imperatives). Transitions are a time of testing. At the same time that they call us to something higher, they tempt us to give in to our soft-minded, prone-to-anxiety, selfish side. Our civilization – our culture and values – plays a role. But in addition, we make choices each day that either strengthen us mentally and spiritually or soften us in equal measure. It’s soft-mindedness, not reorganization or the lack of it, which poses our greatest risk.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Which brings us to the last of Dr. King’s observations. Do you and I work for or with NOAA? Are we engaged in the great 21st century task of learning to live on this planet that is at one and the same time fertile but finite, richly decked out with diverse but fragile ecosystems, generally amicable but occasionally terrifying? Then let’s remember Dr. King tomorrow when we reach the office.

He saw our labor as sacred. So can we.

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