Priorities Redux…

It might be that some of the discussion on priorities at the Boulder AMS Summer Community Meeting just concluded got wrapped around the axle of semantics.

As a lead-in, consider this story, also from Boulder, but a good 35-40 years ago. At that time, I was still doing honest science. I had a good friend of Italian descent who also lived in Boulder back then and another friend of Greek heritage who was visiting for a period. The two of them had been friends since graduate school, and were collaborating on a series of theoretical papers. Their method for writing these papers was to go into the basement of my friend’s home and pleasantly argue with each other at high volume for maybe 7-8 hours a day, week after week. Their respective spouses, who were both along for this ride, spent that same 7-8 hours a day learning the virtue of patience.

The papers that emerged from this process were terrific (to use a technical term), and helped launch their (illustrious) careers. As they explained to me afterward, because they were writing the papers in English, the second language for each, they’d repeat their views to each other over and over to be sure they had a true mutual understanding. They pointed out that such good communication was more difficult for those of us who shared the English language as our mother tongue. We would invariably tend too quickly to assume we understood each other, and jump to a (sometimes) wrong conclusion.

Something like that may have happened this past week.

The key here is the context for discussion of priorities provided by the times we live in. The way the word priorities got dropped into this year’s Boulder discussion was against the background of cuts to specific government agency programs. Two that come to mind were the shortfall in the FY 2011 funding for JPSS, and the some-30% cut in the House mark for NOAA FY 2012 programs with the exception of the National Weather Service. Other Earth science and science-based services at other agencies, including but not limited to DoE, NSF, and NASA have also come under the knife. A number of the Boulder meeting participants had spent months up on the Hill fighting these cuts. The results hadn’t been wholly satisfactory. So, for example, we’d see a partial restoration of JPSS funds, but then discover they’d come from the geostationary satellite programs. We thought we were paying Paul, but meanwhile Peter was being mugged and robbed.

So…when the term got introduced in this week’s discussion, many participants assumed that setting priorities meant being specific about which things we’d throw under the bus. Not everyone felt that making such lists would be the best idea. People referred to Sophie’s Choice a lot.

However, if we go back just a few years, to the election year of 2008, we find that our community quite willingly made a list of priorities. But these were not cuts. These were aspirational priorities that were not in competition with each other. Rather, taken as a whole, our community felt that they could greatly enhance our contribution to the betterment of the human condition. The priorities were also general, as opposed to named programs or institutions, or lines of work. They were intended to provide a framework we could use to describe our work and purpose. A number of folks and institutions (including AMS) contributed to the document, but UCAR and Jack Fellows took the lead. You can find a pdf of the document here.

The year 2008? That was a lifetime ago! It’s likely that few of us can remember the specifics offhand. So let’s review them here explicitly. Here’s the passage, quoted from the document [entitled Advice to the New Administration and Congress: Actions to make our Nation resilient to severe weather and climate change]

“Understanding these regional and local climate and severe weather impacts and having the science and policy tools to make our nation more resilient to these hazards must be a high priority for our country. To achieve this goal, the next Administration and Congress must:

1.       Observations. Fully fund the Earth observing system from satellite and ground-based instruments as recommended by the National Research Council.

2.       Computing. Greatly increase the computer power available for weather and climate research, predictions, and related applications.

3.       Research and Modeling. Support a broad fundamental and applied research program in Earth sciences and related fields to advance present understanding of weather and climate and their impacts on society.

4.       Societal Relevance. Support education, training, and communication efforts to use the observations, models, and application tools for the maximum benefit of society.

5.       Leadership and Management. Implement effective leadership, management, and evaluation approaches to ensure that these investments are done in the best interest of the nation.”

[You and I can interpret this today in one of two ways…as a single priority (as stated), with five elements, or as five priorities for our field. ]

There’s much more to all this. The full document merits rereading. The five general statements here – large, tentpole-type efforts each of which would allow a number of subactivities reaching across our full community to shoehorn in – were each fleshed out with supporting specifics. Everyone in our community would see a way to adjust his/her work to fit in and contribute.

It might be that those urging this past week that a list of priorities was an absolute necessity meant something more in this spirit.

If so, we could do a lot worse than revisit this earlier document as a starting point. Its language could stand some updating to reflect a sensitivity to the current political discussion, which differs substantially from the conversation between the political parties going on three years ago.

But the jobs that need doing haven’t changed that much; in fact, the earlier document was meant to be enduring. The focus on societal benefit and the emphasis on leadership and management are particularly appealing today.

A broad set of aspirational priorities, focused on service to humanity, but comprehensive with respect to a balanced set of efforts that need to be accomplished?

We could all get behind that.

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