A New Role for a Venerable Institution

August 12, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke

More thoughts on this week’s Summer Community Meeting, from the AMS project, Living on the Real World

Robert White, former head of the Weather Bureau (back in the 1960′s), and the first NOAA Administrator, tells the following story. President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and NOAA in the same year, 1970. He set up EPA as an independent agency. He had intended to move NOAA out of the Department of Commerce (DoC), but late in the proceedings he had a falling out with Wally Hickel, the former governor of Alaska who was then Secretary of Interior. At the last minute, in the letter that set things in motion, Nixon inked out “Interior” by hand, and wrote in “Commerce.” Bob claims to have the actual letter.

Good move, Mr. President: A last minute switch put NOAA in prime policy real estate.

Since then, as NOAA’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years, some occasionally opine that NOAA, like EPA, should have been established as an independent agency. But the actual truth of the matter? Quite different. In policy, just as in real estate, what matters is location, location, location. And for NOAA’s issues, the policy landscape of the Department of Commerce is prime property.[*]

NOAA has missed many opportunities over the years to take fullest advantage of its DoC address, and, it must be said, vice versa. Commerce has failed to wield its powerful tool. The stage had been set long before 1970 – in fact, in 1940. That year the Weather Bureau was moved from the Department of Agriculture, its home for half a century, to the Department of Commerce, in specific recognition that weather influences all sectors of the economy, not just the production of food and fiber. But this open invitation for Commerce to wield weather services to have their full impact on national affairs has lain essentially dormant for two-thirds of a century. Successive administrations have left a legacy, but have realized only a fraction of the full possibilities. Now, however, both NOAA and DoC may be about to RSVP.

But more about that in a moment.

Let’s redirect our attention to the AMS Summer Community Meeting in State College. This week, all week, the participants here have been on a roller coaster ride. At times they’ve found themselves carried high by soaring aspirations: a vision of public- and private sector meteorologists and climatologists working together to improve the use of weather and climate information for public health and safety, for agriculture, renewable energy generation, and safer, more efficient surface and airborne transportation, and for environmental protection. At other intervals, they would plunge to the depths whenever they contemplated: barriers to progress posed by the lack of an over-arching, enabling policy framework (see yesterday’s post) that would support and structure the needed public-private partnerships.

Full engagement of NOAA with the Department of Commerce in addition to the external weather and climate community who yearn to work with them offers the chance to break this impasse. National fortunes would improve in corresponding measure. Every sector of society would be safer and healthier. Business and community disruption in the face of weather hazards would drop. Insurance claims for disasters would fall. Crop yields would rise. Renewable sources would contribute a larger fraction of our total energy supply, at lower cost. Transportation by both ground and air would be more reliable and energy efficient. Sound too good to be true? Quite the opposite. This could and should be the future reality, if we act effectively (a central question of our project, Living on the Real World).

NOAA and Commerce would also directly benefit and grow in stature. For the first time NOAA would see full range of its potential contributions actually realized, not just those directed toward public safety. Commerce would profit in several ways. It could contribute directly and visibly to the mission of virtually every other Cabinet Department. Second, it would establish a new level of relationship with all segments of the private sector, from agribusiness to energy to insurance to transportation to name a few. In so doing, it could develop and test policy models for public-private collaboration that could be evaluated and then be applied across all of government. And finally, it would foster private-sector development of new international markets for U.S. goods and services.

Important scientific and technical challenges need to be met. But the real challenges, and the real key to progress, lie in the policy arena. What is needed is for Commerce and the public sector to open an exploratory dialog. Discussion should focus on finding ways for the public- and private sectors to grow beyond their relationship as regulator and regulated, as principal and agent. Both sides need to identify those areas where public- and private goods services are comingled, and then seek ways to function as strategic partners in that space. Getting the policy framework right won’t be easy. It will require getting the business model right, offering the private-sector participants a fair return for their contributions while protecting the interests and rights of the taxpaying public, addressing the intellectual property issues (more on this in a future post).

Today’s Commerce leadership is stirring, keen to innovate and move the country and the economy forward. NOAA and the AMS community are equally ready. Think about it. But for a president’s fit of pique forty years ago, we might not stand at the doorway to this future.

[*]A snippet of history. When Theodore Roosevelt established the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903, it was supposed to become the nation’s statistical agency – for all statistics except those pertaining to agriculture. (At that time, USDA had already been around for ten years and established itself as an ascendant agency. In fact, at that time it housed the Signal Service, progenitor of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service)). Even today, if you were to characterize the intellectual glue that holds the Department of Commerce together, you would do well to say it’s the measurement of things that are difficult to quantify. The National Institute of Standards and Technology measures physical constants; the Economic Statistics Administration measures GDP, employment figures, leading economic indicators; Census measures not just total population, but numbers of homeless, immigrants, etc.; NOAA measures carbon dioxide concentrations, fish stocks, the rise and fall of global average temperatures. You get the idea.