Congressional Staff Hear Unified Call for a U.S. Weather Commission

by Ellen Klicka, AMS Policy Program

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill

The weather enterprise in the U.S. is a diverse community of government agencies, the private sector, academic institutions, and nongovernmental societies with a common interest to foster resilience to weather events from the national level to the smallest village.  The effectiveness of the enterprise is affected by its members’ ability to listen to the needs of the users of weather products and services and speak up to ensure those needs are met.
On Thursday, Congressional staff members packed into the House Science Committee Hearing Room with representatives from NOAA, scientific societies, private companies, universities and other interested parties to discuss the state of the weather enterprise. The agenda centered on the proposed creation of the first U.S. Commission on Weather Policy.
The briefing, sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and the Weather Coalition, was prompted by recommendations the National Academy of Science Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (BASC) made in an August report, Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None. The BASC report drew upon lessons learned from the National Weather Service (NWS) modernization project completed in 2000 and provided guidance on future improvements to the NWS.
One recommendation focused on engaging the entire weather enterprise to develop and implement a national strategy to strengthen products and services the public depends upon. “The greatest national good is achieved when all parts of the enterprise function optimally to serve the public and businesses,” the report stated. The Weather Coalition, in turn, recommended the establishment of a commission.
The briefing also followed a Town Hall meeting at the 2012 AMS Annual Meeting in New Orleans that solicited input from AMS members regarding what messages the weather enterprise needs to send to Washington.
Panel speakers included John Armstrong, chairman of the BASC report committee; Bill Gail, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Global Weather Corporation; Pam Emch, Senior Staff Engineer/Scientist, Northrop Grumman; and Tom Bogdan, president of UCAR. Moderator Scott Rayder, Senior Advisor to the President, UCAR, asked the panelists to lay out the case for chartering such a commission, which would likely be composed of top officials from the Legislative and Executive branches.
The commission would provide “strong and consistent advocacy” for the weather enterprise’s priorities in an organized manner, Dr. Emch said. Dr. Gail emphasized the opportunity afforded by a thriving private sector within the weather enterprise even during a strained period in the national economy. Dr. Armstrong provided a reminder that today’s information-centric society continually raises the public’s expectations of the accuracy and convenient delivery of the enterprise’s products and services.
An e-mail invitation described the purpose of the proposed commission. “At a time of fast-changing technological innovations, the commission would advise federal policy makers on setting priorities for improving research and forecasts thereby creating a more weather-proof nation. Its goal is to ensure effective spending on the nation’s weather research and related systems, while minimizing the impacts of major storms.”
The proposed commission would follow the structure of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, chartered by the Oceans Act of 2000.
Before a weather commission launches, specific measurable criteria need to be developed to gauge its effectiveness. Will objectives encompass securing steady or increased federal funding? Are any new programs or councils called for? Will expectations or guidelines be set as to what the private and academic sectors would contribute and receive in return?
According to Dr. Bogdan, a near-term next step might take the form of a second briefing on Capitol Hill, during which end users of weather forecasts and warning information could convey their needs and how they would benefit from a U.S. Commission on Weather Policy. Supporters of the proposed commission also will need to identify members of Congress willing to sponsor a bill that would charter the commission. If legislation is introduced, the sponsors would have their turns to courageously speak up for the weather enterprise and ask their colleagues on the Hill to have the courage to listen.