Boosting the Vitality of the U.S. Weather and Climate Enterprise

August 11, 2013 · 16 comments

by James Stalker, President and CEO, RESPR, Inc.

Editor’s note: Because this column has triggered much discussion in the community already, it is important to emphasize that all posts on this blog–guest columns or otherwise–present the opinions of the authors only. These blog posts do not represent official policy or views of the AMS or of its membership. What follows are an individual’s thoughts, and we hope that others in the community recognize, as does Mr. Stalker, the value of open discussion.

The U.S. weather and climate enterprise is exemplary to many nations of the world. And yet, it appears to struggle to maintain its edge—especially in economic development, job creation, and producing constant weather-readiness throughout the nation. While dwindling public funding may be partially to blame, the problem is deeper.

What systemic issues might be holding the enterprise back? Is there unhealthy competition between sectors?  Can we avoid a slowing rate of growth within the weather and climate enterprise? How can we make the enterprise more vibrant and help it stay vibrant? It is important to consider such questions, especially now as we prepare for the AMS Community Meeting this week in Boulder, Colorado.

Sectors and their objectives

Government, academia, and the private sectors all provide products and services to a fourth sector—the users. This user sector is the most important of all, and its members must far outnumber those of the other sectors in a healthy enterprise.

Each sector has a different mission. For example, government mainly provides timely weather and climate information to citizens in order to save lives and minimize property damage. The government sector, secondarily, provides weather and climate information to the academic and private sectors to indirectly support education, research, and economic development. Additionally, the government engages in research and educational efforts itself.

It is fair to ask whether or not the government sector adequately fulfills its primary objective. Huge gaps exist in the weather and climate information available in the public domain today, and there are inabilities to adequately customize data to meet the disparate needs of the citizens. However, the government sector does provide information critical to the academic and private sectors. The fact that the government sector seems to do better in achieving its secondary objective, relatively speaking, than its primary objective suggests that something does not work well.

The primary objective of the academic sector is to educate our future scientists and technicians. Secondarily, it offers products and services to the other sectors. Strengthened weather and climate datasets from a refocused government sector would improve the academic sector’s success in its primary and secondary objectives. A refocused government sector would similarly benefit the private sector in developing better value-added products/services for users. The beneficiary shareholders come from all walks of life, of course, but primarily it is the satisfied customers—the users—who keep the private sector alive and well.

Pathways for Products

Curiously, the “free” weather and climate data model of the government sector can potentially lead to the unsustainable situation in which product and service providers outnumber users. We see this by looking at the various pathways by which weather and climate data product and service providers interact with one another and reach out to the user sector.

Schematic showing various pathways amongst four sectors. Schematic showing various pathways amongst four sectors.

 

All the pathways shown above are currently utilized in one way or another. In the current weather and enterprise structure, Pathway 1, by which the private sector reaches out to the user sector, is competing against Pathways 2 and 3, where the government sector and the academic sector, to a lesser degree, offer “free” data products to the user sector. Even though the private sector provides value-added products, the user sector is made to believe that they can get similar weather and climate products from the government and academic sectors for free. Secondly, since the government sector is focusing on Pathway 2, its production of a strong foundational data for Pathway 1A receives minimal attention.

Even though Pathways 1 and 3 don’t necessarily compete with one another, at least not as apparently as Pathways 1 and 2, the academic sector could increase its effectiveness by focusing its scarce financial resources on education and academic research.

The status quo enterprise structure results in unnecessary road blocks for the enterprise as a whole.

The vitality of the enterprise would get a boost if the government sector reversed its priority of objectives and emphasized, instead, on providing critical weather and climate information to the private (Pathway 1A) and academic (indirectly to Pathway 1B) sectors. At the same time, the academic sector would make a positive contribution to the vitality of the enterprise by shifting focus on improving and providing weather and climate information through academic research to the private sector (Pathway 1B). Both Pathways 2 and 3 would become secondary objectives in the new sectoral coexistence illustrated here.

This suggests that a business model aimed at providing “free” weather and climate information, while appealing, is not sustainable and will lead to inferior products. This model puts the private sector at a severe disadvantage.

The whole weather and climate enterprise will have to realize this fatal flaw. The government sector should ask itself: “Would it be better to invest more of the taxpayer dollars in what the government sector does better than in what it does not do so well?”

With this adjustment, the private sector will become the chief provider of end-user products and services to the user sector directly. This would not necessarily mean the end of Pathway 2, however. For example, the government might wonder if some users would be unable to afford the value-added products/services provided by the private sector. In this case, instead of trying to produce end-user products/services itself, the government sector would be better off purchasing them from the private sector and making them available to those users who are in need of the value-added products/services. In other words, certain segments of users may receive value-added products indirectly from the private sector.

A Path to Consider

Leaders engaged in weather and climate products and services from the three sectors should get together and evaluate the merit of this adjustment of priorities. The government sector would share with the other sectors; its effort would be appropriately split between strengthening the foundational weather and climate information and directly reaching out to the user sector. An oversight committee, sponsored by AMS, could ensure continued implementation of this new adjustment within the weather and climate enterprise. This committee would come up with further adjustments to the enterprise structure.

It is necessary practice in business, government, and academia alike to continually reexamine priorities to ensure economic vitality in a changing society and changing markets. The weather and climate enterprise should be no exception.