Speaking of communication…money talks!

Several vignettes from this year’s AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle.

#1. Early in the meeting, I happened to run into Tim Killeen, the NSF Assistant Director for Geosciences. He barely said hello before asking me, “Bill, have you heard about SEES?”

I hesitated, and we both agreed I’d flunked his test. “SEES,” he went on, “stands for Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability.” He added, “This investment area spans all the NSF directorates, and will amount to about ten percent of our budget. It ought to be the topic of conversation here at the Annual Meeting, and yet there’s virtually nothing about it anywhere in the conferences and the sessions.”

!!!! Ten percent of NSF’s annual budget – some $7B/year – is real money.

Thankfully, Tim graciously went on to let AMS and me off the hook. “We could have done more to publicize this at the NSF,” he said. “But please let people know about the dear colleague letter which is still on our NSF website.”

The letter merits careful reading in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt:

“The SEES Portfolio will support research and education projects that span all eleven NSF Directorates and Offices, including:

  • research at the energy-environment-society nexus
  • novel energy production, harvesting, storage, transmission, and distribution technologies, and their intelligent control that minimizes environmental impact and corresponding adoption, socioeconomic, and policy issues
  • innovative computational science and engineering methods and systems for monitoring, understanding and optimizing life-cycle energy costs and carbon footprints of natural, social and built systems (including IT systems themselves)
  • data analysis, modeling, simulation, visualization, and intelligent decision-making facilitated by advanced computation to understand impacts of climate change and to analyze mitigation strategies
  • study of societal factors such as vulnerability and resilience, and sensitivity to regional change
  • short and long term research enabled by a new generation of experimental and observational networks
  • support for interdisciplinary education/learning science research, development, and professional capacity-building related to sustainability science and engineering
  • creation of research and education partnerships around forefront developments in sustainability science and engineering, both nationally and internationally
  • development of the workforce required to understand the complexities of environmental, energy, and societal sustainability
  • engaging the public to understand issues in sustainability and energy
  • development of the cyberinfrastructure and research instrumentation needed to enable sustainability science and engineering
  • support of the physical, cyber, and human infrastructure necessary to achieve SEES goals”

Probably you’d agree that it would be harder to prove that your work, whatever it is, doesn’t fit under this umbrella, than that it does. And that said, it’s quite probable that many of you have already responded to requests-for-proposals under these auspices. [In fact, that may well be true of the American Meteorological Society also; in my conversation with Tim, I just wasn’t quite quick enough to connect the dots…]

An aside before moving on to another money conversation. We can make a forecast. This articulation of a sustainability investment area won’t prove to be a one-off. More likely, it signals the start, or next step, in a series, doesn’t it? Increasingly, as society grows more concerned about the Earth as resource, victim, and threat, we’re going to see further calls for research proposals in these areas and along these lines. We can and should thank Tim and other NSF leadership for their vision here.

#2. In another conversation, a leader in our field shared with me some approximate figures that come from the financial sector. Apparently, communities and local governments in our country owe something like $1T, and virtually all of that debt is climate-sensitive. That is, the communities’ ability to pay down the road will be sensitive to cycles of flood and drought. Too great a departure from historical means could increase the risk of default to both the communities and their creditors. State governments also owe another $1T in climate-sensitive debt. At the national level, the debt is less climate-sensitive; maybe only 5-10% of the total. But that total is $14T and rising.

So in rough terms, the share of climate-sensitive debt at all three levels of government is comparable – and, in sum, huge. The nation’s financial sector has a lot of exposure here. [And where, by the way, do they get this money? Some of it is from our pension plans. This is not an arena where any of us as individuals should feel exempt.]

The good news? That financial sector’s interest in these matters is real and unequivocal. They’re not asking whether climate change is real or no. The bad news is: the kinds of information they want and need for proper stewardship of these trillions of dollars are beyond our reach. A lot of work needs doing! And fairly urgently.

#3. Money also talked throughout the President’s State of the Union Speech Tuesday night, and much of that conversation was sobering. Wednesday headlines hinted at freezes in government spending. Education and research (especially green R&D) are supposed to be excepted, but again, experience suggests that just as a rising tide raises all boats, it often proves difficult to sustain special budget priorities in times of general retrenchment.


Why juxtapose these three particular examples? To illustrate that money not only talks: money has an extensive vocabulary. Sometimes, as in our first example, money shouts out opportunity. Sometimes, as in the second instance, money strikes a note of caution. And finally, in our third, money exposes us as conflicted: inspired on the one hand by our hopes and aspirations, but simultaneously, hamstrung by inhibition. How well we master money’s talk will determine our future prospects.

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3 Responses to Speaking of communication…money talks!

  1. Pingback: A Sustainable Investment in Sustainability

  2. Alan Weinstein says:

    Interesting NSF Program.
    But, honestly folks….Where is 10% of NSF’s budget best spent….on” societal needs” , or basic scientific research?
    After all this is the National SCIENCE Foundation. Remember? Science!.
    I hate to be a crumudgeon, but I believe the country, and in fact, the world, needs advances in basic science, more than it needs 10% of NSF’s budget spent on societal needs. There are a multiple of agencies furthering societal needs, but only two to further science….NSF and DOD. And the latter has far greater responsibilities than only science.

    The President called for an invigoration of science. It will not come if we spend 10% of the nation’s scientific budget on societal needs.

    • William Hooke says:

      Alan, you have a point, but a question for you…how do we set priorities in science when we don’t have all the time in the world. It seems like there might be a place for triage in allocating effort, as I discussed in my October 30 post. Just asking.

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