Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None

Earlier today, the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council released the second report from its Committee on the Assessment of the National Weather Service’s Modernization Program.

The report is entitled “Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None.” You can find it here. It’s a follow-on to the previous Committee study, The National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: A Retrospective Assessment (2011)”

The titles of the reports and the committee name? Each is quite a mouthful. But this latest report contains some punchy, useful findings and conclusions. It merits reading in its entirety, but here are highlights of the interesting bits.

The committee begins by identifying three challenges for the National Weather Service: (i) to keep pace with accelerating advances in science and technology across a broad front worldwide; (ii) to meet rapidly expanding and evolving user needs, and (iii) to partner effectively with a larger service-provider enterprise comprising a vigorous mix of private enterprise, academic institutions, and NGO’s.

The report then provides three ways the NWS might respond to these challenges: First, they can prioritize core capabilities. They should establish quality and performance metrics for all aspects of their work that contribute to their “foundational” data sets, with a focus on quality control, user requirements, and scientific advances. They should give equal priority to the product generation and dissemination, brokering and provision of data services, and development of analytical tools that go into the issuance of watches and warnings. They should engage the entire observing, research, and service-provider enterprise in ongoing, sustained transition of research to operations, and vice versa.

Second, they should evaluate function and structure. Although the NAS/NRC is deferring specifics to a likely follow-on study to evaluate NWS function and structure in more detail, they hint in this report that advance of science and technology may be opening up new possibilities for improving the way the NWS is organized and configured to accomplish its mission. Here as in the discussion on core capabilities, they emphasize the importance of metrics. [Readers might channel Eisenhower who famously said that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” It’s not so much that any particular metric is valuable, but the institutional thought process about what constitutes improvement or success is priceless.] The NAS/NRC sees this examination as extending beyond the NWS proper to include other relevant NOAA Line Offices.

Third, they should leverage the entire enterprise. Just two decades ago, the NWS was viewed as the primary source of the Nation’s weather information, which it delivered more or less directly to emergency managers and to the public (through broadcast media). Today’s public and private weather-sensitive users operate in an information soup, obtaining their data, warnings, and other services from a wide range of sources, each adding value, each broadly consistent but differing in details and in presentation. The NAS/NRC argues that it is important to maintain the legacy information flow. But they suggest that the current, more complex system is likely to function most harmoniously and best serve the users and the public if the individuals and institutions that comprise it coordinate and communicate frequently and effectively. Moreover, this collaboration has to be more than tactical. It has to be strategic and sustained.

Food for thought as the weather, water, and climate enterprise heads to the AMS Summer Community Meeting, scheduled for August 13-16, 2012 in Norman, Oklahoma. [Are you a player? There’s still time to register.]

To the NAS/NRC committee, kudos! To the National Weather Service, and that larger enterprise, aiming to be collaborative in approach but vigorous in execution, Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re! [1]

[1] Gently in manner, strongly in deed

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