Think of NOAA as young. Though founded in 1970, in agency-years it’s a mere adolescent! Everyone agrees it’s precocious, bursting with potential. It’s already sociable – and growing more so. But, like most adolescents, to reach full maturity, it has to learn adult social skills. For simplicity, let’s think of these in two pieces. The first, which we’ll discuss today, is building awareness of, and sensitivity to, others – their nature and their needs – and going that extra step, namely putting others’ needs first. Others includes just about everyone, but especially those institutions and individuals who directly use NOAA science and science-based services.
[The second, which we’ll postpone until the next post, involves the way NOAA translates this head knowledge into action – developing and exercising meaningful collaborations and partnerships to achieve larger national and global purposes.]
Awareness of others? What’s that all about? At last month’s AMS Annual Meeting, Michel Jarraud, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, hinted at something like this in his talk. He said, “We meteorologists are introverts…”
[!!! In fact, meteorologists tend to be social, for reasons we’ve discussed. In contrast to high-energy physics, say, or pure mathematics, meteorology is inherently cooperative. And Michel’s audience that morning was primarily heads of weather services from countries around the world, a truly gregarious bunch.]
Then Jarraud finished his sentence: “we talk only to each other.”
Jarraud was being a little light-hearted. But what he meant was that all too often we see our science and science-based predictions as ends to themselves. When we get the forecast right for the (wonk alert!) 500-mb height, or for tomorrow’s max-min temperatures or the probability of precipitation, we think we’ve had a pretty good day. And we’re most comfortable discussing our weather research, services and products with other meteorologists.
Natural enough, perhaps, but, to use today’s vernacular, “it’s not about us.” That’s playing a kind of meteorological solitaire, isn’t it? Say you’re a farmer. The daily temperature range might indeed matter. But instead of probability of precipitation, you might like to know precipitation amount. 500-mb height? What’s up with that? In fact, you might really be interested in the evapotranspiration from your fields, so you could address the question, “should I irrigate tomorrow?” There’s still a lot of work to be done to take the NOAA information and convert it into something you can use.
Or suppose you’re controlling flight operations for a major airline. You might prefer to know flight-level winds, so that you can determine your aircraft fuel requirements more precisely, and tanker just a smidgen less reserve fuel on each flight.
And now, say you’re a private-sector meteorological services firm. You stand ready to convert the NOAA techno-speak into tailored products for those individual farmers, airlines, and many other users. In fact, you’ll take it amiss if NOAA reaches out too specifically to particular users – that’s your niche.
In fact, NOAA has to be sensitive to, and interested in, all end users and uses of its science and services, and the entirety of the public policy framework that governs the whole. What constitutes the government mission/mandate? The public good? What constitutes private interest? When and for what should customers pay, or, conversely, when and for what have they already paid, as taxpayers? And (exactly like most of our adult relationships) these are constantly shifting and changing with the times, with the complexity of all this increasing with the passing of each year. We have to learn how to be as analytical about these questions as we are about data assimilation, numerical modeling, subgrid-scale parameterization.
All this poses an extraordinary challenge for NOAA leadership. Why? Because there’s no way each NOAA bench scientist, or shift forecaster, or fisheries inspector, or sanctuary manager, can master all of this knowledge. Each must specialize. Most NOAA scientists and engineers find those core activities discussed yesterday (observations, modeling, research) a full-time occupation in themselves. This specialization in turn requires that leaders, for their part, create policy and management frameworks that make this compartmented work effective, that ensure the individual pieces fit together and add up to what the country needs, without wasteful redundancy or overlap.
NOAA leaders will not be able to accomplish this by simply shifting existing resources from current core activities into the social sciences and the policy work. Years of escalating costs for satellites, for salaries, and mission creep (case in point, the recent establishment of a climate service) have taken their toll. To keep pace with growing national needs in future years, NOAA needs additional resources, for both the core tasks and the new societal impact and policy work. Given the current fiscal climate, agency leaders are unlikely to garner these through some kind of big-bang approach. Instead, they’re most likely going to have to bootstrap their way, step by step, to the needed resource levels.
Accordingly, no-frills social science must focus on the most urgent, critical questions: What are the impacts of weather and climate on public safety and health, the economy, and the social fabric of nations? What are society’s impacts on the Earth in turn? Where can information on current and future weather and climate make the greatest difference? How can we use our current knowledge and understanding more effectively? What additional research and services are needed now? What can we postpone? What policies can best guide our allocation of resources (funding, staffing, facilities) across NOAA?
NOAA leaders can’t hope to answer these questions unaided. There’s too much potential for conflict of interest. They’ll need help, from the Congress, the White House, and from their collaborators. Just now, however, those same players seem to be just a bit distracted.
Welcome, NOAA, to the adult world.
Next time… how an agency and its people, seeking to be relevant, can start turning things around.
 Remember, these comments apply to NOAA…but they also apply to the other federal agencies whose missions include the Earth as resource, victim, and threat: Department of Interior, and its agencies; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Energy; EPA; NASA; the geosciences directorate of NSF; and many other federal agencies, as well as state- and local agencies; and their academic and private-sector collaborators.