Looking for Answers at the AMS Summer Community Meeting

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director
(Note: This is one of the first postings from Dr. Hooke’s new blog, Living on the Real Earth, an American Meteorological Society project probing some of the basic questions underlying the goals of our community as it serves society.)
Here’s a question. Why should a blog claiming to look for answers to big issues (what kind of world is likely? what kind of world do we want? what kind of world is possible if we act effectively?) zoom in on a few hundred people meeting in the middle of Pennsylvania for four days?
Here’s the answer. Because this handful of people, due to a convergence of circumstances – some strategic, and some accidental – holds some of the keys to the kingdom.
Let’s begin with a look at who’s here in State College for the 2010 AMS Summer Community Meeting. Participants are for the most part in the business of answering the first question: what kind of world is likely? That is, they provide weather and climate products and services, or they are doing the research that provides the basis for those products and services. That said, they have a range of backgrounds. They’ve come from all over the United States. Some are from the public sector, from government agencies. Some are from for-profit corporations. Some work in research universities. Within each sector, participants run the gamut from bench-level scientists and forecasters to managers of such work to high-level policy officials and corporate leaders. A considerable number have played several different roles over extended careers. Ask them whether they are private-sector or public-sector, or scientists or leaders, and they’ll either tell you what their job title is at the moment, or confess that they’re conflicted.
Secondly, if asked what kind of world they might want, they wouldn’t try to oversimplify that world. They wouldn’t seek to control climate or weather, or limit its variability, or even eliminate hazardous events; they wouldn’t see that as realistic. They’d say instead that they want a world where regardless of what the weather and climate might do next, these changes can be anticipated, in time to seize the benefits (the water for crops, the good weather for transportation or recreation, etc.) and moderate the hazards (the cycles of flood and drought, the damaging storms, and so on). They’d hope their science and services could be used to save lives and property, foster economic growth, protect the environment and ecosystems, and promote geopolitical stability.
Neither would they try to oversimplify the coping strategies. They wouldn’t see the job as all public-sector, or entirely corporate. They wouldn’t see decisions and actions as top-down, command-and-control, or, for that matter, bottom-up. They’d see roles for everyone.
Finally, as they wrestle with these issues over the week, they’ll have our third question, “What kind of world will we live in if we act positively?” in the forefront of their minds. Why? Because they all know that the kind of world that is possible if they act effectively hinges on the policies that govern public-private collaboration.
Really? Absolutely. This is one of the biggest policy challenges the world faces today. It permeates national and global agendas. To see this, think back over the news you’ve read for the past few months: (1) the collapse of global financial markets. (2) health-care reform. (3) the Gulf-of-Mexico oil spill. (4) national security. In each arena, the key stumbling block has been about the relative roles of public- and private-sector, and perhaps most importantly, how these sectors might be expected to collaborate. Start with the financial sector collapse. Were Lehmann Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and AIG culpable? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Arguably so. Why were some allowed to fail and others rescued? Just what does it mean to be “too big to fail?” In the future, can and should the government try to prevent the growth of banks and other financial firms to such a size? What fault rested with the SEC?  Take health care. One of the key sticking points was whether there would be a government-provided insurance option. Think about the Gulf oil spill. Was BP to blame? Yes. But there was plenty of blame to go around, wasn’t there? Minerals Management Service oversight, like the SEC oversight of the financial sector, seemed to be weak.  And, as it turns out, the government had no real capability for stepping in and fixing the problem. The bulk of the tools and capabilities were largely in BP’s hands. National security? For the past few years, the big story coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan has been the blend of military and private-sector contractors that are involved in the projection of U.S. influence abroad. And recently, the Washington Post caused quite a stir when it did its three-part story on the proliferation of organizations responsible for intelligence, and the co-mingling of private- and sector intelligence work.
So, if it ever was the case that government alone is responsible for public safety, environmental protection, national security, etc. – the so-called public interest, while the for-profit world could focus on production of consumable goods and services, subject to government arms-length regulation, that simplified picture isn’t so useful today.