Visiting WAS*IS…whazzat!!!!?

Yesterday we were wondering: what kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?

We concluded that natural scientists working alone can’t answer this question. Many of the key issues – what will human beings do? – lie in the realm of the social science. So social scientists need to be involved. But they’re throwing up their hands in surrender as well. The pace of social change is enormous and accelerating. Population growth, urbanization, economic globalization, and scientific and technological advance are radically transforming patterns of resource use, habitat, and social vulnerability to hazards. Social scientists struggle to keep up with what’s happening now, let alone feel confident they know where things will head next. In addition, individuals and institutions are changing behavior as they look over their shoulders and see what natural and social scientists are thinking and saying.  Hard to make useful predictions in this setting!

Believe it or not, this touches on the second of the two questions: what kind of world do we want? We’ll return to this second question in a more structured fashion down the road (I promise!), but today we need to jump ahead of our story just a bit. Let’s anticipate that in the real world of the future, the task of realizing weather’s benefits, and protecting ourselves from weather threats, will grow more complex and challenging as a result of this social change. Let’s assume further that the kind of world we want is not a world that is free from cycles of flood and drought, intense winter storms and hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. – that’s not the real world! Instead, what we seek realistically is to use forecasts to take some of the sting out of these events.

This has been a goal of meteorological services in the United States for some time. The earliest government collection of weather data dates back to the War of 1812. James Tilton was surgeon general of the army then. Concerned with the health of soldiers, he ordered all Army surgeons to take daily weather observations (harking back to Hippocrates perhaps, per the August 3rd post?). Later, in 1870, the Army Signal Service would be tasked with making weather observations and predicting the approach of storms in order to protect sailors on the Great Lakes. In 1890, weather services were shifted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to support farmers. The Weather Bureau was moved to the Department of Commerce in 1940, so that it could meet the needs of newly merging weather-sensitive sectors of the economy such as aviation.

Step away from government for a moment and look at the AMS logo. As early as 1920, before numerical weather prediction, AMS members looked toward the application of their work to public health, aviation and marine navigation, and many other activities. Fast forward to today, and we find in every NWS Weather Forecast Office a Warning Coordination Meteorologist, who engages the community on an ongoing basis to improve the use of weather information when it matters most. Private-sector firms such as AccuWeather, AWS Convergence Technologies, Inc., DTN Meteorlogix, and The Weather Channel all provide value-added to weather-sensitive sectors. When it comes to weather, it’s all about end use.

However, for all this history, much of what has been done to assess the societal impacts of weather and to improve the use of forecasts has a catch-as-catch-can feel. It’s been haphazard, highly variable, and more intuitive than grounded in careful analysis. Increasingly, individual meteorologists and their parent organizations are frustrated by the limitations of this approach, and long to do better.

This desire has spawned several fledgling cross-disciplinary encounters. Of these, perhaps the most intriguing, and certainly the most enduring, goes by the unlikely name of WAS*IS.[1] Their web site gives a nice description of their goals, purposes and methods. Check it out. They’ve been successful to date because they blend dynamic staff, extraordinary participants, and a thoughtfully constructed one-week structure, but also because of an accident of timing. The world of today – with e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other new technologies and opportunities for social networking – has allowed WAS*IS participants to stay in touch with each other in the following months and years, leading to a continuing impact. Visionary program managers at NCAR and NOAA have also managed to sustain institutional support for WAS*IS despite relying on year-to-year funding.

Remove any of these ingredients, and the program wouldn’t be so successful. But some 200 people have now been through WAS*IS, and they’re beginning to move up their respective institutional career ladders, and in the process, replicate their training experience back home. WAS*IS is going viral.

You can get a better feel for WAS*IS by looking at the agenda and participants list (for this or any prior year).  The participants are truly special people. They’re selected from academia, the private sector, and government on the basis of a nationwide competition. For the most part they’re entry-level, with just the right leavening of a few more mature participants. But to really appreciate the program, you had to be there. They get a fantastic amount done during the seven days, but in the process generate a lot energy and enthusiasm. And for many participants, the best part is the discovery that they’re not alone. Coming in, they thought they were the only ones who yearned to integrate their natural science with social science. They got to WAS*IS and encountered others of like mind.

I’m joining them this year, not for the full ten days, unfortunately – just for a few hours – but feel privileged just the same. Did I mention that I hope some day soon one or more of the WAS*IS folks will contribute a post to Living on the Real World? And did I mention that the WAS*IS sessions also sometimes have a little of the flavor of an AA meeting?

“Hi, my name is Bill. I’m a recovering atmospheric scientist. But I’ve been clean for the past ten years. Today I think about the societal aspects of everything I do.”

“Welcome, Bill!”


[1] WAS*IS is an acronym…Weather And Society Integrated Studies…with the goal of changing the culture from what WAS to what IS the future of integrated weather studies.

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1 Response to Visiting WAS*IS…whazzat!!!!?

  1. Pingback: WAS*IS, 2011-style | Living on the Real World

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