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Number 35, September 2002


Homeland Security and the Atmospheric Sciences

On June 6, 2002 President George Bush proposed that the federal government reorganize its “homeland security” activities into a single agency because his administration had “concluded that our government must be reorganized to deal more effectively with the new threats of the 21st century.” Specifically, the President argued,

“Right now, as many as a hundred different government agencies have some responsibilities for homeland security, and no one has final accountability. For example, the Coast Guard has several missions, from search and rescue to maritime treaty enforcement. It reports to the Transportation Department, whose primary responsibilities are roads, rails, bridges and the airways. The Customs Service, among other duties, collects tariffs and prevents smuggling -- and it is part of the Treasury Department, whose primary responsibility is fiscal policy, not security."

While there has been considerable discussion about the new Cabinet-level agency, as so often seems to occur in major discussions of policy, the atmospheric sciences have not been included in such discussions.

But if the new agency is indeed to serve as “a focal point regarding natural and manmade crises and emergency planning” (reference) it is hard to imagine that the atmospheric sciences would not be part of homeland security discussions (reference) and perhaps even part of the new institutional arrangements.

Leaders in the atmospheric sciences community would appear to agree. For example, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research argues in a pamphlet titled “National Security and the Essential Role of the Atmospheric Sciences” that “weather and climate information is of increasing value … to military operations, and responses to terrorist attacks.” And the National Research Council has created a committee to explore “Tools for Tracking Chemical/Biological/Nuclear Releases in the Atmosphere: Implications for Homeland Security.”

While the issue of homeland security raises many questions about atmospheric science and technology, there is one question in particular that I’d like to focus on here: Should the National Weather Service (NWS), currently a part of the Department of Commerce, be considered for inclusion in the new Homeland Security Department? There would seem to be a number of reasons why such a move makes sense and a number of reasons why it does not.

Reasons why a move makes sense

1. Mission alignment.

Part of the National Weather Service mission is to focus on protection of life and property. As such, if it makes sense to place the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the Department of Homeland Security, it would only seem logical to consider placing NWS there as well. And since the vast majority of FEMA’s activities deal with weather disasters, not terrorism, any enhanced connection between FEMA and NWS would likely be of benefit to the nation’s disaster policies.

2. Better use of Science and Technology.

The issue of effectively using science and technology (e.g., such as transferring knowledge from a research environment to an “operational” environment) is receiving considerable attention in both the world of weather and climate and in the world of homeland security.

Perhaps placement of the NWS into the Homeland Security Department would provide additional impetus to turn research results into useful products and services (see reference). If so, this would be a valuable boost to the nation’s weather services.

Reasons why a move does not make sense

1. Lack of mission alignment.

The NWS also has a mission to enhance the nation’s economy. The dual missions of the NWS historically have wreaked havoc in the area of public and private sector roles and responsibilities. This focus on the economy suggests that the Department of Commerce is indeed the proper institutional home for the NWS. In any case, consideration of NWS’ placement within a homeland security department would be valuable if it were to lead to a discussion about how the NWS might reconcile the challenges posed by the inherent conflicts of its dual mission.

Bigger questions.

Some have questioned whether the creation of a Department of Homeland Security will accomplish its intended goals. Before addressing whether it makes sense to move the NWS, isn’t a logical prior step to get some understanding of whether the new organization can actually work? Further, the nation has built its weather, climate and water services over more than 100 years. Whatever opportunities exist for their improvement exist in the context of a track record of success. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Ultimately, what matters most is how the NWS might better benefit the nation. Broad institutional change occurs infrequently enough in government that it would be worth asking whether the nation’s weather, water, and climate services might better serve the needs of the nation under a new structure. If nothing else, simply raising the question might lead to proposals for change that make sense irrespective of any ultimate reorganization.

Roger Pielke, Jr.
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
University of Colorado