Public and Private: More Thoughts from the AMS Summer Community Meeting

August 11, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director

A post from the AMS project, Living on the Real World

Back in the 1990s, while still working at NOAA, I was once part of a two-day U.S.-Japan bilateral discussion in Tokyo on science and technology issues. Bill Clinton was President. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s former Vice President, was then ambassador to Japan. Tim Wirth, who at that time was Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, was leading this particular delegation. Wirth, Mondale and the rest of us from the U.S. side were in a big meeting room with the Japanese. Leaders from Japanese government and industry filled the room, under auspices of MITI, the Japanese Ministry for International Trade and Industry. The Japanese couldn’t comprehend why the United States was moving so haltingly on a range of environmental and hazards matters.

“You have to understand,” Tim Wirth was saying, “that if government and industry worked with each other in the U.S. the way you do in Japan, people would go to jail.”

Tim Wirth’s remark has everything to do with this week’s discussions at the AMS Summer Community Meeting in State College. Two points: First, and foremost, this is our history and our policy in America. Our nation decided long ago that we wanted a free-market society, with minimal government. We wanted government to focus primarily on regulations that would foster capitalism and business competition, and at the same time curb corruption, restraint of trade, monopolistic practices, and other abuses. Second, this approach is a policy, a choice, or framework of choices, not an inescapable reality. Other governments are free to adopt other approaches, and have, as the Japanese example illustrates.

Well, as is so often the case, you pick your poison. The Japanese approach spurred their remarkable economic growth in the 1980’s, as government and industry coordinated their efforts to propel a number of businesses – Toyota, Sony, Yamaha, Mitsubishi and many others – to global dominance. But the same system of interlocking public- and private-sector relationships and directorates promoted a number of sweetheart-, backdoor deals, especially in the financial sector, that has contributed to the stultifying deflation and economic stagnation Japan has endured the past twenty years.

By contrast, in the United States, we experienced rapid economic growth until late in 2008, but since then we’ve seen a raft of problems stemming in part from barriers to collaboration at the public-private interface: (1) the financial sector meltdown, with certain firms “too big to fail” and arms-length, inadequate SEC oversight, (2) health care reform, where debate on the so-called “public-option” almost unhinged the process, (3) the BP oil spill, forcing government agencies and BP to work together to fix the problem, and therefore making it necessary to invent ways of cooperating on the fly, and (4) issues of “who does what” with U.S. projection of influence across the Mideast, which has been an awkward blend of military, civilian government, and contractors, constantly struggling to avoid overstepping their bounds.

Meanwhile, the diverse array of independent partnerships and collaborations that comprise today’s weather and climate enterprise in the United States is experiencing similar problems in microcosm. The existing relationships are largely ad hoc, and often meant to be temporary. But many have proved useful, and as they have grown, because they are not necessarily compatible with each other, they have begun to encounter problems at the interfaces:

Here is just a sampling of challenges that have emerged:

  • Satellites have become a vital part of the Nation’s Earth observing system, but the pace of transfer of technology from research to operations has slowed, and the cost of satellite procurement have soared. Some have suggested that both these challenges could be addressed if the government were to contemplate moving from purchase of satellites and their associated ground systems to purchase of satellite data streams, but this would require major cultural changes for all parties.
  • Networks of surface sensors have proliferated to the point where federal and state governments own only a fraction of the total. The networks are meeting their original purposes, but at a cost of a lot of duplication and waste. The country – both the public- and private sectors – could achieve great synergy by creating a national-level (as opposed to necessarily federal) data exchange, but how might this be accomplished?
  • In addition to fixed surface networks, today’s trucks and automobiles offer another potential 100 million weather sensors. Better surface weather forecasts over roads are sorely needed. But some R&D will be needed to pave the way. And investments in infrastructure are required, not just by the federal government, but by the states and by automobile manufacturers.
  • The return on investments in renewable energy – especially wind and solar power – could be greatly enhanced with better short-term, low-altitude, weather forecasts over rough terrain generally, but over wind-generation sites in particular.

In all these instances, what can government do to work in partnership with the private-sector service providers rather than in competition with them?

And finally, the people of the United States are trying to achieve their aspirations in the face of what some have called the most hazardous weather in the world. To build community resilience in the face of such threats requires that public-sector, private-sector, non-governmental- and faith-based organizations all pull together.

As Summer Community Meeting participants continue to mull all this over, one federal agency is in a good position to help – perhaps uniquely so. That is the subject of my next post.