NOAA’s newest house.

Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain – Psalm 127:1a NIV

Chances are good that many readers are familiar with this Old Testament phrase. It’s a reminder that we can do far less in our own strength than we like to think. But it also gets us in touch with the idea that we don’t go it alone. It’s an invitation to remember how much a debt we owe to others in our day-to-day lives (for the food we eat, the Metro that takes us from home to work, the gasoline at the pump, and the building we live in and the building we work in). It’s a chance to reflect on how much we owe our family at home and our co-workers on the job. And it invites us to reflect that there’s a lot of love being shared every day in every circumstance, and to wonder whether all that love might have a source.

And sometimes we see a building so special that it calls this passage to mind.

Here’s one:


Monday a few hundred of us got to sit in on NOAA’s ribbon cutting ceremony for its new Center for Weather and Climate.  What a celebration! Acting Assistant Administrator for Weather Services Laura Furgione emceed. U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) was the first of seven heavy-hitting speakers. She was followed by Commerce Secretary Dr. Rebecca Blank. Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere Dr. Jane Lubchenco came next. Dr. Wallace Loh, President of the University of Maryland, made remarks on behalf of NCEP’s academic hosts and partners. Rushern Baker III, Prince Georges County Executive followed. Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator, represented the General Services Administration. Louis Uccellini, the current director of NCEP, closed out the formal presentations. All then adjourned for the ribbon cutting proper.

The tenor of the remarks? Lots of thanks and congratulations all around, including frequent acknowledgement of the role played by the NCEP staff, earlier NCEP directors Ron McPherson and Bill Bonner, et al. Starting with Barbara Mikulski, most of the speakers emphasized the role of technology in fueling Prince Georges County’s and Maryland’s economic engine. Most also emphasized the weather-sensitivity of the U.S. economy and NOAA’s role in guiding the country through all that. Dr. Loh noted that 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing the Morrill Act, establishing Land Grant Colleges (including UMd), and affirming the role of science in the service of society. He asked us all to reflect on what that notion should look like in the 21st century. In different words, all speakers exhorted the staff to make of NCEP what Dr. Lubchenco called “a cauldron of creativity.”

Louis Uccellini called out a special thanks to NOAA’s David Caldwell for his work to bring about the building and the move. Dr. Uccellini also made two predictions: (1) that this facility would prove to be a “game changer” for the entire (meteorological) enterprise, and (2) that it would fulfill the vision of a recent NAS/NRC report, helping to make the NWS “second to none.”

[Maybe going a bit beyond the scope of the Navier-Stokes equations, but nevertheless fitting from a speaker whose job description has “prediction” in his title.]

After the ceremonies, we all had the chance to roam the new building a bit and talk to some of the staff. The overall impression?

An atrium and extensive use of glass let in great views of the sky, the outdoors, and a lot of sunlight. An ample auditorium, lots of meeting rooms, and open office layouts will encourage collaboration.

A myriad of problems and delays had stretched the time from the building’s inception to completion out to 13 years. During this period the former Camp Spring Facility had deteriorated badly.  So the move into the new quarters had been long-anticipated by the new occupants.

Unsurprisingly, the building has boosted morale. Staff talked about how exhilarating it was just to walk through the doors each morning. One professional said he’d been unprepared for what a huge difference the building made in his outlook. Another said it made her feel that the nation valued them and the work they are doing. The building and its inviting setting near University of Maryland Centers carrying out related work will serve as a magnet, drawing top scientists around the world for stays of varying duration. NCEP has become a destination.

The lift to NOAA spirits couldn’t be coming at a better time. With challenges to satellite operations, budget shortfalls, travel restrictions, the specter of sequestration, threatened moves of the agency and its elements from Commerce to other agencies, pay freezes, and more, NOAA employees from the leadership to the bench scientist and the line forecaster might be forgiven for feeling beleaguered.

Readers therefore might be interested in the rest of Psalm 127, which is probably a lot less familiar than that first bit:

“Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.” – Psalm 127:1b NIV.

Both this and the first part of verse 1 are an invitation to rest – not an invitation to goof off or dog it, but an invitation for us to approach our work and careers with the knowledge that our success or failure isn’t on our shoulders alone. We’re responsible for execution but not the results. And that execution will be better, particularly for knowledge work, if we can maintain a relaxed state of mind. Agency leaders and NOAA managers (the “watchmen”) should take special heart from this verse. Times are tough but will get better.

In case we still don’t get it, the Psalmist added this next line:

“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Psalm 127:2 NIV.

So, to my NOAA friends, be thankful that your work matters, but be aware that you’re not going it alone. Allow yourself that rest…and permit yourself to enjoy it.

Maybe that applies to all of us.

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3 Responses to NOAA’s newest house.

  1. Tracy Rouleau says:

    Navier-Stokes? Had to look that one up – but learned something today. As always, well said Bill – Hurrah for NCEP, for NOAA, and for the Nation!

  2. Michael Cunningham says:

    “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” Bill, my interpretation is different from yours – I would internalise it. Whatever we do, we should do it with good volition, taking actions which are good for ourselves and good for others, based on self-awareness, knowledge of reality and on wisdom and equanimity derived from that.

    Whether or not you call this “doing the Lord’s will,” whether or not you have any religious belief, you will be fulfilling your capacity as a human being if you behave as I described, and taking the wholesome actions which religion, at its best and if soundly-based, seeks to inculcate in people. Of course, we are social creatures, but ultimately it is our own responsibility and volition which leads to good or bad outcomes.

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