(Social science and) the case for a NOAA in Commerce

This week we’ve been looking at social scientists’ ten suggestions for policymakers. [Want to catch up? You can start here and work back through the thread…]

At least one suggestion out of the ten has prompted reader reaction…

7. Incorporate (climate change, weather-readiness[1]) into other more immediate issues, such as the economy, education, and public health.

Let’s look a little deeper…

In this respect, social scientists see natural scientists as having lost our way.

Lost our way? What do you mean, Bill?

Simply this: natural science took off 500 years ago when we realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe. With that insight, a lot of facts and data started to make sense. Took a long time for religious leaders and lay people to see things our way, but they came around. However, here we natural scientists are today, looking at the acute, highly-localized threats posed by natural hazards, the slowly-unfolding dangers implicit in climate variability and change, and loss of habitat, and diversity…and puzzled that others don’t see these concerns as central.

By contrast, social scientists find this reality wholly understandable. Day-to-day, all of us are more concerned about our jobs, our health, and education for our kids. Maybe over the year, depending upon where we live, there are a handful of days where we have to put weather at the top of our list of concerns. And that’s true, even for such weather-sensitive sectors as agribusiness, energy, transportation, and water resources.

[Maybe you’re starting to see the case for NOAA in the Department of Commerce…please be patient, as we weave in another thread.]

Now come at this from a slightly different direction. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan and other writings, argues that financiers are investing along one of two lines. The vast majority invest as if weather extremes, financial-sector meltdowns, meteor strikes, terrorist acts, etc., etc. are never a factor. Taleb is derisive. He notes that those investors with this mindset make a little money virtually every day, but lose so much on the days that are the exceptions as to put themselves in a hole over time. He argues in favor of his (minority) approach, which loses a little money virtually every day, but makes such big money on those rare days when catastrophe occurs as to come out ahead over the long run. He argues that the black swan events that make the difference are inherently unpredictable.

This (oversimplified) picture suggests that both groups of investors…and whole nations and peoples as well…are leaving money on the table. In principle, if Earth observations, science, and services have progressed to a certain point, it might be possible to reduce the population of Black Swans, by moving some of those unforeseeable events into the predictable column. And then (depending upon the allocation implicit in a given country’s economy) some or all people benefit in corresponding measure, either directly or through a trickle-down. [The same would be true, if we could improve our social-science forecasts…not just the trends and disruptive events in the economy, but also the other social upheavals: if we could predict when social conditions get so bad that they trigger an Arab spring, the Occupy movement, demonstrations in Moscow, terrorist acts…] Suppose we could predict when the Cascadia Subduction Zone will experience a rupture similar to last year’s Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan? Suppose we could predict when that category 4 or 5 hurricane would hit Manhattan? Or Miami? Or that Joplin tornado would instead hit St. Louis? Or the day when the Euro might collapse? Or the ATM’s stop working? Suppose we knew when and how to divert our populace from its daily pursuits toward protective action? What matters in all this is not just the natural science, or the social science, or the economy, or the policies, but the linkages joining these. Improve our weather predictions, especially for the extremes, and we can accelerate economic growth.

This understanding is what we need to progress from where we are now toward more sustainable development. The Department of Commerce, with NOAA on board, even augmented with other business-development agencies as the administration suggests, holds promise as the home for the government piece of such a transcendent national responsibility.

Ron Brown, a former Secretary of Commerce, recognized this as early as the 1990’s. You’ve seen the story before: His first day on the job, in early 1993, he stopped by the NOAA cluster of offices in the Herbert C. Hoover Building. He said to those of us who were there at the time, “I had my choice of Cabinet positions. And I chose Commerce. It’s the Department for the 21st century.”

Inspirational at the time. And still today. What a leader.

What Ron Brown saw was that sustainability was going to be the pivotal issue for the 21st century. It is vital that those of us alive today sort out the solution to the real world’s core puzzle: how to extract the resources we need for life and build our economy – while at the same time, locally and globally protecting the environment and ecosystems that we trample on daily, and sheltering ourselves from natural threats. And Ron Brown also knew that Commerce has many of these elements under one roof.

There’s NOAA to inventory those vast ocean and coastal resources so vital to our history and future; providing the weather, climate and water information essential to agriculture and the feeding of the world’s peoples; monitoring air and water quality; and warning of hazards from hurricanes and winter storms to drought, volcanic ash, space weather, and tsunamis. NIST provides wind, fire, and seismic engineering foundational to protecting shelter and critical infrastructure from hazards. Census locates vulnerable populations and tells us where the schoolkids are (teeing up the Education piece…please bear with me!). EDA rebuilds communities devastated by disaster. ITA helps U.S. industry take many of these products and services and market them abroad. And on and on.

But Commerce has the potential to do far more. Its very name invites us to see it as a natural point for reaching out to business and industry…and all the great 21st century tasks require true collaborative effort between government and the private sector. In the right hands, with the right vision, under the right leadership, Commerce can help the United States accomplish such partnership at a strategic level – the means to so many ends. [An August post from 2010 expands on this.]

Bottom line? If policymakers are serious about incorporating (climate change, weather-readiness…) into other more immediate issues, such as the economy, education, and public health, then they might think twice before moving NOAA from the Department of Commerce. The flip side? If either within the executive branch or on the legislative side there’s no such commitment, no such vision, then perhaps NOAA might as well be moved to Interior.



[1] …you can fill in the blank with either of these or some other issue: coral reef management, groundwater quality…

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2 Responses to (Social science and) the case for a NOAA in Commerce

  1. Bill:-

    What about a third option? I absolutely agree that NOAA doesn’t fit in Interior. But what about a new independent agency with the ability to provide advice and counsel to all of the relevant agencies? I’ve long wondered whether an independent “Department of Data” might not offer some very real benefits to the country. I am very uncomfortable with mission-oriented agencies potentially cherry-picking data to justify actions they want to take. Maybe NOAA, the Census, NIST, the EIA, parts of Labor, Education, the CDC, and the EPA … bound together with a single overarching mission – to provide decision-quality data to both the Executive and Legislative branches.

    • Many thanks, John. A great point and supporting argument. You’re reminding me I have a colleague who claims that the worst invention of mankind has been “the coin,” because it’s encouraged us all to think there are only two sides to every question. He says that most of the time we should instead be considering a range of alternatives.

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