The AMS Summer Community Meeting: ending in a good place!

The last of the out-of-town participants have pulled out of town by now. Our State College hosts, including AccuWeather, Penn State, and the National Weather Service, are no doubt breathing a collective sigh of relief. Today we’re all rediscovering our inboxes. Some final impressions looking back…

State College is a happening place. Our hosts wanted to show their capabilities to good advantage, and in this respect they succeeded admirably. From the meeting venue – Penn State’s Cybertorium – to the AccuWeather reception and tour hosted by Joel Myers, and everywhere in between, the atmosphere crackled with energy and ideas for the full four days. The AMS Board on Enterprise Communication organized a great set of sessions: substantive, packed full, on point. Speakers were prepared, spirited and thoughtful. We learned that Holly and Barry Myers, with a little help from the American Weather and Climate Industry Association, throw a mean barbecue. The weather cooperated: sunny days, pleasantly warm but not scorching; evening temperatures perfect for ice cream at the Creamery. The rains didn’t start until it was time to leave…

The “Community” is in a good place. This was the specific wording of choice emerging from the wrap-up session. By this, participants meant that the various sectors comprising our diverse community – public-, private-, and academic-, were all engaging each other much as had been envisioned by the authors of Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services. In 2003, when the Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services recommended that the AMS provide a venue for such engagement, what little dialog there was tended to be intermittent, unfocused, lacking in structure and a policy foundation, and inclined toward the rancorous. By contrast, this past week, at points during the sessions, speakers were moved to say things like “several years back we couldn’t have had this discussion…”

“A good place,” yes…but no reason for complacency. No resting on the oars just yet! Consider just one example. Ed Johnson (director of Strategic Planning for the National Weather Service) gave a masterfully understated presentation on a Wednesday afternoon panel late in the proceedings. Instead of giving an exhaustive talk and leaving no time for any Q&A, Ed saw his role as teeing up a topic for conversation. So, after a self-deprecating reference to his “New Year’s resolution to talk less and listen more,” Ed simply made a few brief remarks, including this one, “I think intellectual property (IP) will be important in the future.” That triggered half an hour of animated discussion from all sides. Everyone had something to say. In an era where data and information come from so many sources, both public and private, and where the value comes from comingling all this, the question of how to compensate contributors – to make the enterprise both sustainable and fair, to discourage free riders but avoid paying twice – looms large. At issue is not only the sustainability of the enterprise, but also the effectiveness of the collaboration. How can we respect the role of IP, and reap its advantages, without unnecessarily creating barriers to entry, slowing innovation, etc.?[1] The community will likely wrestle with this for years. (Incidentally, Thursday’s post noted that the Department of Commerce is in a natural position to lead…you can add this additional piece to yesterday’s rationale; Commerce houses the Patent and Trademark Office. It’s one-stop shopping.)

The AMS Community is living up to the name. The term “community” shouldn’t be applied to any enterprise cheaply; there should be a high bar.  Dictionary.com gives several definitions for “community.” The third of these is most pertinent here:

“a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.” [italics in the original]

Coming across that last phrase was a pleasant surprise; it’s been with me since ninth grade. Then I was a student at Wilkins Township Junior High, just outside Pittsburgh. (The school was kind of tough and my ambition was to graduate with all my teeth, but that’s another story.) Our science course that year focused on the weather. The course made an impression on me that lasted over half a century. In part this was because the Earth sciences became my career, but in addition there were two other reasons. First, our teacher, though she was nominally the science teacher, was uncomfortable with science. (This was before the AMS started its Education Program; today’s science teachers have no excuse!). So, our textbook notwithstanding, we spent the entire semester (!!!) on weather superstitions/folklore…”mares’ tails make lofty ships carry low sails,” etc. The semester seemed to me to drag on forever; I’m sure she felt the same way. Second, the opening page of that textbook stated, and I quote, from memory, “Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” As the son of a scientist, even then the thought inspired me. I wanted to be part of such a community.

In college I majored in physics, and then entered graduate studies at the University of Chicago. I started out at the Institute for the Study of Metals. But there, and then, competition, not cooperation, was the word. It was dog eat dog. The field seemed over-populated. A lot of people were working on the same problem (the de Haas-van Alphen effect, which had been around about 35 years), not sharing progress but keeping results to themselves, etc. After one year, I transferred to the Department of Geophysical Sciences after a year. What a breath of fresh air! There were more than enough problems to go around. Nobody was going to win a Nobel Prize. Growing rich was not in prospect; the geophysical scientists had all taken vows of poverty. As a result, or maybe because the field attracted cooperative types, we all got along! The contrast with physics was palpable.

Today we can all feel more privileged than ever to be part of this community.


[1] A few years ago, Rebecca Morss and I wrote a short piece for the Bulletin on aspects of this topic: The Outlook for U.S. Meteorological Research in a Commercializing World: Fair Early, but Clouds Moving In?, Rebecca E. Morss and William H. Hooke, Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 86, pp 921-936 (2005)

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