FYI: Science Policy News

National Academies Planning Study on Future of US Weather Enterprise

AUG 27, 2018
The National Academies Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate is seeking to conduct a study that articulates a vision for the future of the U.S. weather enterprise over the next 10 to 25 years.
Science Policy Analyst


Image credit - NOAA

The National Academies Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC) has announced plans to “outline a vision for the U.S. weather enterprise over the next 10-25 years.” The study would aim to identify community goals for the next decade as well as critical investments, institutions, and coordination mechanisms needed to meet them.

Over the past year and a half, BASC has worked to garner support from the U.S. weather enterprise’s three primary sectors: the federal government, academia, and industry. The study would address many of the challenges the weather community has grappled with over the last decade, including the appropriate balance and coordination of efforts between the three sectors.

Study to address balance of roles within US weather enterprise

The current study proposal describes the weather enterprise as having entered “a time of rapid change,” with technological advances in artificial intelligence, computing, and sensors bringing new challenges and opportunities. It also notes the community is “on the brink of unprecedented improvements” in areas such as hyper-local, subseasonal-to-seasonal, and impact-based weather forecasting. Meanwhile, the growing and evolving role of the private sector continues to generate opportunities for “exciting innovations” but also could “create a more complicated landscape for the weather enterprise.”

The National Academies published its last major assessment of the weather enterprise in 2003. Known as the “Fair Weather” report, it defined the roles and responsibilities of each sector of the enterprise and recommended ways to enhance public-private partnerships. The National Academies also published a report in 2012 on National Weather Service modernization efforts that concluded the agency’s structure still reflected the state the field was in during the 1990s. The report recommended NWS prioritize its core capabilities, evaluate its function and organizational structure, and strengthen collaboration with public and private sector partners.

The proposal notes the new study would build on existing federal agency missions, congressional directives, and other strategic documents as the “foundation” for its analysis. BASC is pursuing a crowdsourcing approach for financing the study and is seeking broad participation to ensure the study reflects the diversity and complexity of the weather enterprise.

AMS members discuss potential study focus areas

To formally announce the study and solicit input, BASC held a workshop earlier this month at the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Community Meeting in Boulder, Colorado.

One focus of the discussion was how to optimize partnerships between the three sectors of the weather enterprise. Some participants emphasized that defining a common purpose for the enterprise could eliminate harmful competition between sectors.

AMS members also discussed the scope of the weather enterprise and how it should be defined in the study. Many emphasized the enterprise should engage with stakeholders across the entire “value chain” of weather forecasting as well as across Earth systems disciplines. One member also expressed hope the study could help bring the climate and weather communities closer together.

Members also highlighted the role emerging technologies will play in weather prediction and forecasting capabilities, such as big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. Several noted that as these advancements are made, it is important to simultaneously review the human role in the enterprise so that education and training resources can be tailored accordingly.

The evolving role and needs of the public was also discussed. Some members emphasized the role of social science in improving how weather information is communicated and used. Others said the enterprise will need to engage with end users to develop a better understanding of how weather information is accessed and used as new technology drives increased generation of data.

Use of decadal survey framework debated

Planning for the study has been ongoing since 2016 when University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Antonio Busalacchi called on the National Academies to launch a new decadal survey for the weather enterprise in testimony before the House Science Committee. “Given the ever evolving nature of the weather enterprise,” he said, “I would submit we need an active and ongoing strategic planning process as could be achieved by Congress requesting a decadal survey for the weather enterprise inclusive of mid-way assessments and subsequent follow-on surveys.”

Busalacchi elaborated on his recommendation in an interview with FYI. While noting he has heard skepticism about whether the diverse perspectives in the weather enterprise can be adequately captured under a single common strategy, he was confident it can be accomplished, pointing to the range of disciplines that collaborated to produce the latest Earth Science and Applications from Space decadal survey . He added,

Given there are so many different moving parts and things are changing so rapidly, this would be a good opportunity to get representatives of all those three sectors … to really sit down and think about where this enterprise is going for the next 10 years.

Busalacchi argued the study should use the decadal survey terminology since it has “cachet and gravitas on Capitol Hill.” He said decadal surveys help agencies to develop scientific agendas and set budgets that “transcend” changes in agency and political leadership. “A good thing about a decadal survey as opposed to some consensus study is it is a process,” he remarked, noting it also includes mechanisms to assess progress on implementation of the decadal priorities.

BASC has convened several community meetings to gather input on the study proposal from industry, academia, and key agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, NASA, and Department of Defense. While there is broad agreement on the merits of such an effort, some stakeholders have pushed back on the idea of using the decadal survey framework.

BASC member and University at Albany-SUNY professor Everette Joseph told FYI that when the study was first proposed, NOAA had expressed concern with how it would relate to existing agency plans and congressional directives in the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act , a major NOAA authorization law that was enacted last year.

“There was resistance to another effort being superimposed on these sort of agency plans [and the Weather Act]. I can guess there was a perception that was what the decadal survey would be,” Joseph said, adding, “If you look at [NASA’s] decadal survey they are congressionally mandated … and they really have teeth with respect to other academy reports. Not to say other academy reports aren’t important, but there are legal implications with the decadal survey.”

He noted the current proposal aims to address NOAA’s concerns by “placing an emphasis on the use of agency mission, strategic plans, and congressional mandates as a foundation for the study to work from.” Pointing to the Earth science decadal survey as an example of how a survey committee can give NASA considerable flexibility in determining its missions, Joseph said, “Agencies should have latitude in designing the [study] statement of task in ways that are constructive within the context of their mandates.”

Joseph said he believes support for the study has increased as a result of the community meetings and the evolution of the proposal, as well as “the development of other lines of reasoning — such as the opportunity for the study to contribute to implementation of elements of the Weather Act.”

Noting a new leadership team is now in place at NOAA, he said, As they settle and set priorities, BASC is having constructive discussions with them and looks forward to that continuing.”

Related Topics
More from FYI
NOAA wants to boost its weather satellite programs, potentially at the expense of research and ocean exploration programs.
The Department of Energy is seeking to accelerate the progress of science with tailored AI models.
Darío Gil is the first working industry executive to hold the position in more than 30 years.
The grants aim to lay the groundwork for a telescope focused on searching for life outside the solar system.

Related Organizations