Some Thoughts on U.S. Weather Policy

July 26th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Today I am giving a presentation at the “Community Meeting on the Future of the U.S. Weather Prediction Enterprise” on U.S. weather policy – that is, on how decisions are made within the meteorology community to organize research and its connections to operations and end users. If you are visiting this site as a result of my talk today, Welcome!

The meeting has been called because of concerns among some in the meteorology community — “Although weather prediction in the United States has made significant strides during the past several decades, there are a number of warning signs that U.S. weather prediction and research are not living up to their potential.” And a background paper (PDF) by the University of Washington’s Cliff Mass provided in advance of the meeting provides a similar message:

“… there is a growing sentiment in the community that weather prediction research and operations in the U.S. have significant problems, and that progress in diagnosing and predicting the weather is far less than our discipline’s potential. All too often the large American weather prediction enterprise, both in research and operations, has worked with insufficient coordination and cooperation, resulting in inadequate resources for key tasks, inefficient duplication of effort, slow progress developing essential technologies, and unproductive or inappropriate use of limited manpower. Significant problems have developed because key players in the weather enterprise-operational centers, academic researchers, government laboratories, the user community, and the private weather sector-have not worked together effectively.”

I’ve had the pleasure of working with the weather community – academia, government, private sector, WMO — for more than a decade and have written a number of pieces on weather policy that both reinforce and contradict aspects of the common problem justifying the present meeting (links to several relevant papers can be foound below).

First, the weather community has not reached its potential. But this should be viewed not as a crisis or situation requiring drastic action. In fact, weather, and weather forecasting in particular, is one of the great technological success stories of the 20th century. The weather community has been so successful that the United States is among the most resilient and well-prepared communities in the world with respect to weather hazards. It should say some thing that weather forecasting only makes the news when there is a significant forecast bust. Can the weather community do even better? Probably, but there is very little latent demand for them to do so.

Second, the weather forecasting community, and especially the research community, has an unhealthy focus on obtaining more resources for the science of meteorology. This does little to distinguish this area of science from most others, but the weather community has both a wonderful track record of sustained and significant federal support, and a string of failures in dramatically increasing that level of support. History is littered with the experiences of weather research programs that failed to break the bank – MESOMEX, SESAME, STORM, USWRP. It is no surprise to me that one of the sessions at this week’s meeting is devoted to funding. As this community goes forward, it would be wise to pay close attention to the lessons of past efforts to organize large community programs.

My talk today revisits an essay that I wrote about 5 years ago that I titled “Six Heretical Notions About Weather Policy.” Here is a summary of my perspective which I share today in my talk:

The weather community postulates that improved forecasts will benefit society. Thus, the logic about what to do is obvious.

* To improve forecasts we must advance science.

* To advance science we need improved models.

* To test and use improved models we need better observations.

* To assimilate the better observations and run the improved models we need faster computers.

* More funding will enable faster computers, better observations, improved models, and advances in science.

Therefore, more funding for advancements in science, models, observations, and computers are necessary and sufficient to benefit society. A corollary is that the greater the funding to meteorology, the greater the benefits to society. This logic seems so obvious and inescapable that to many in the weatehr community, and as a result great frustration is sometimes expressed when policy makers in places like Congress and the Office of Management and Budget apparently fail to grasp its self-evidence. But well-meaning, but scrutinizing, person might question this logic? In particular, the follow notions might occur to an outsider:

*More data is collected than is ever used in research or operations

*Forecasts are already great — How good do forecasts have to be?

*The weather community is flush with funding (consider a recent BAMS article by Alan Robock that presented data showing that the average meteorology professor at 16 leading research universities obtains $500,000 of funding per year, totalling more than $115,000,000 in research support.)

*More research has been produced than has ever been incorporated into operations

*Improved value of weather forecasts is constrained by characteristics of use and users and not by forecast accuracy

*The atmospheric sciences community is so large and full of overlaps and redundancy that no one really knows what the universe looks like.

I conclude my presentation with six more heretical notions, updated to 2005:

*New funding – Forget about it!

*The frontiers of weather research lie in sciences other than meteorology

*In the developed world the future benefits to society of weather services are primarily in the private sector

*In the developing world the future benefits to society of weather services are primarily related to basic infrastructure of forecasting-warning-use

*Operations, not research, always has to be at the center of the weather enterprise

*Any effort focused on the weather “research” or “prediction” enterprise is doomed to failure

For further reading:

Pielke Jr., R. A., and M. H. Glantz, 1995: Serving Science and Society: Lessons from Large-Scale Atmospheric Science Programs. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 76(12), 2445-2458. (PDF)

Hooke, W. H., and R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2000: Short-Term Weather Prediction: An Orchestra in Search of a Conductor. Chapter 4 in D. Sarewitz, R. A. Pielke, Jr., and R. Byerly (eds.), Prediction: Science Decision Making and the Future of Nature. Island Press: Washington, DC. 61-84. (PDF)

Pielke, Jr., R. A., and R. Carbone, 2002: Weather Impacts, Forecasts, and Policy: An Integrated Perspective, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 83:393-403. (PDF)

Questions or comments?

2 Responses to “Some Thoughts on U.S. Weather Policy”

  1. Kooiti Masuda Says:

    >*In the developed world the future benefits to society of weather services are primarily in the private sector

    I think it may be true (though I am not very sure). I do not mean to object it.

    On the other hand, I fear of this kind of statements being quoted out of context. In the United States, observational data taken by the federal government are put in the public domain. But it is not the case in other countries. In the discussion of policymaking, “private sector” usually means market economy (not family life), and emphasis on the private sector very easily implies that meteorological data should be considered economic goods. This idea hampers free exchange of data. Even if the price is cheap, or if academia are subsidized for the cost of purchasing data, putting the derived (merged, analyzed) data in the public domain becomes difficult. I think that the desire for free exchange of data is not simply egoism of the research community. It is important for the public in “the developing world” as well, for instance. But it is difficult to win the debate against simple-minded privatization proponents. I think that protecting and fragmenting information is a “tragedy of anti-commons”, but I do not have its demonstration. I think that this issue applies to the United States as well if private sector takes over the observational role of the government.

    I am sorry for making an out-of-context comment. But this is out of my real anxiety.

    Kooiti Masuda
    in Yokohama, Japan

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  3. Kooiti Masuda Says:

    Quite another comment.
    This opinion partly conforms with what my employer (a research institution … see link at my name) promotes, and it may be biased because of that. But nevertheless this is my own opinion.

    I think that cloud-resolving global atmospheric models, now in the stage of basic research, can considerably improve medium-range (1 to 2 week) weather prediction in the tropics (though it is not yet guaranteed). Its impact in the middle latitudes may be just as far as tropical influence matters. Improvement in weather prediction in the mainland U.S. by this technology may not justify the huge investment on computer resources and “research”. Improvement in weather predition in the tropics may not be the primary task of NOAA (or other national weather services in the middle latitudes). On the other hand, it is very unlikely that tropical countries, even together, can afford such investment (though their participation is essential). I am not sure how it can be achieved, but anyway it will require public funding of “developed” countries and cooperation by NOAA and other national weather services.

    Kooiti Masuda
    at Frontier Research Center for Global Change, Yokohama, Japan.