WeatherZine WeatherZine Number 8, February 1998
"What's happening on the Societal Aspects of Weather WWW Site."


EditorialWhat is a Good Forecast?

Community NewsAn AMS Congressional Fellows Program

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What is a Good Forecast?

With tragedies occurring in California and Florida in recent days and weeks, extreme weather has captured the attention of the nation. One result of these events will likely be to focus attention on how prepared we as a nation are to respond to floods, tornadoes, and other phenomena.

One question that will certainly be asked is how good were the forecasts? But a problem exists in answering this question: while the weather community has developed highly sophisticated methods for evaluation and verification of parts of the forecast process, it has not placed similar attention on evaluation of the process as a whole. As a consequence, typically when the weather community answers the question posed in the title of this editorial, the answers do not necessarily address what policy makers (and society more generally) considers to be most important.

The forecast process can be thought of as three parallel processes: (1) a prediction process that provides information, (2) a communication process that shares information, and (3) a choice process that focuses on decision. It is not enough that the forecast process be judged as meeting the criteria of success within each of the three process. The three processes must also be working together in harmony.

An example might better illustrate the problem. Last April, extreme flooding occurred in North Dakota and Minnesota. A review of what happened shows that the flood predictions were arguably just as good as those issued in the past (in spite of heavy criticism), the flood forecasts were effectively communicated to the public, and decision makers made rational decisions based on the information that they had. So while one could make the case that the individual elements of the forecast process were successful on technical grounds, the process as a whole clearly broke down in significant ways in terms of societal outcomes. A review of the forecast process suggests that the information about forecast uncertainty needed by decision makers (which many may not have even known they needed!) was not addressed in the prediction process and thus not communicated. The forecast PROCESS broke down even though the parts might have been successful on their own terms.

One way to think about the forecast process is to compare it to a symphony. The player of each instrument requires considerable expertise. We might assess the ability of each by asking them to play scales or part of a score. But it would silly to conclude that the symphony was playing good music after evaluating each member individually. Instead, to make music the symphony must play together from the same score. Small errors in the collective effort will result in noise, not music. The forecast process is similar, while different players have different responsibilities, they must be in harmony for success to result.

The analogy raises some interesting questions about the forecast process. Who ought to evaluate the goodness of forecasts? Who is the conductor responsible to ensure that the players are in harmony? How well has the forecast process been performing, from a societal perspective? What can be done to improve the forecast process?

These questions are difficult to answer. But as society becomes more vulnerable to weather extremes through development and other factors, these questions will be raised more and more frequently. Will the weather community have answers?

— Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

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Community News

An AMS Congressional Fellows Program

The American Meteorological Society and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research are considering initiation of a congressional fellows program, akin to those run by prominent scientific societies like AAAS, APS, AGU, and GSA.

A congressional fellow is much like a post-doc. But instead of placing the scientists in a research setting, a congressional fellows program provides a way for a recent Ph.D. in the physical sciences to spend some time working in a staff position in Congress. This serves two important functions. First, it provides congressional staff access to bright, scientific minds which facilitates the transfer of knowledge into the policy process. Second, it gives the scientist a chance to better understand how policy actually works and the role that science plays in decision making.

Looking at the track record of past congressional fellows sponsored by the scientific societies results in an impressive list. While many have returned to successful research careers, others have chosen to remain in Washington. Some have risen to positions of considerable influence in the world of science policy — within Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Executive Office of the President, among other places.

As society places more attention on the interface of science and decision making, the experiences provided by an congressional fellowship will be all the more valuable to future scientists who choose research or policy careers. The AMS congressional fellowship would represent an important milestone in better connecting the atmospheric sciences with societal needs.

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