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

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.

16 thoughts on “Boosting the Vitality of the U.S. Weather and Climate Enterprise”

  1. So if I read this correct: the NWS should stop providing forecasts and warnings to the public, but instead provide private sector / academia with information they need to do those things. And then buy them back from the private sector to provide to the public for free?

  2. Mr. Stalker talks about a de-emphasis, which does “not necessarily mean the end of Pathway 2”, as he calls it. But, of course, his example of a new way of providing Pathway 2 involves repurchase from the private sector, as you say. Hopefully Mr. Stalker will have time during this busy week to address your comment, since the opinions and suggestions in this post are his own.

  3. There seems to be one pathway missing that has become just as competitive as the private, government and academic sectors. That is the web enterprise. In other words, data provided through the government sector is also used to provide data services through the Internet including apps that may be developed for personal use). Since the government data is available through public domain, smaller Internet and numerous Internet sites are developed for mostly anyone to use. This must be considered as competition to the private sector since cooperative data comes from government and academia sources.

  4. James raises some valid points and rightfully stirs debate on several others. Isn’t that what a good blog post does?
    A response to go over all my points would be much too long, but I’ll summarize: The government has and will continue to be the lead entity supplying general forecasts for the safety of the public, as well as providing the backbone of suface and overhead observations for those forecasts. But budget realities, changing perceptions and technological advances (not to mention some poor management decisions) mean the private sector can and should step in where gaps exist and policy dictates. While I disagree with James in that the primary duty of the government sector should be to provide services to the public first, the public sector is probably better suited and positioned to do so in the future. And if they can do it more efficiently, why shouldn’t we let them? If the private sector can build and operate new weather satellites that the government buys data from, what’s the problem as long as the data is valid and the government gets value? The government will always have a valuable role that the private and academic side can’t match, but there’s plenty of room for all three sectors to coexist and even leverage from each other.
    We can’t continue business as usual, and James is just offering one possible solution. In that regard, the AMS can and should play a role in fostering that discussion, which includes allowing posts of differing and possibly dissenting views.

  5. When it comes to the forecasts being made mainly by the private sector, here’s the big problem on why the private enterprise will ever take that on other than a value-added basis: Lawsuits and Liability insurance. One mistake today could lead to billions in claims. And right now, because the government provides basic forecasts, they sort of give a blanket immunity from all but the most professionally absurd blown forecasts out there. If the private industry had to provide the main forecast and they blow it, they wouldn’t get that immunity any more (can’t blame the government), and I would hate to see how long the company that makes that blown forecast stays in business, even the largest ones. And even Lloyds of London and AIG wouldn’t be willing to take those type of insurance policies, at least without premiums that would make the premiums paid by high-risk sections of the medical field seem like peanuts, in my estimation.
    Answer how we get around the lawsuit and liability system here in the US, and we could open it up more.

  6. This is in response to Randy’s comment:
    Thank you for your encouraging words.
    My blog post is not seeking to define boundaries or addressing the issue of competition amongst sectors. It is suggesting that the sectors come to an understanding to optimize strengths and weaknesses of all the sectors. Let’s all remember that the most important sector of all—is the user sector. Should the enterprise ignore the user sector, enterprise vitality would be a non-issue.

  7. This is in response to Jim Marusak’s comment:
    You brought up a good point.
    My blog post highlights the need for improved foundational data by the government sector, followed by customized forecasts by the private sector for increased forecast accuracy. If there is a private sector company providing forecasts for the general public, i.e., without any agreement with the users, your argument about the potential lawsuits is valid. It is up to those businesses that engage in such forecast services to insure against such potential risk. In many cases, however, private sector businesses sign agreements with their users stipulating all conditions under which their forecasts may not perform as expected. In other words, there is more to the private sector’s engagement in providing forecasts than what you have pointed out.

  8. I very much appreciate these comments. Please provide more such comments as this topic is highly critical for the vitality of the weather and climate enterprise.
    I wrote this blog post based on my understanding of and experience in the academic, government, and private (current) sectors. I appreciate the Editor’s decision to publish this blog post but these suggestions are my own.

  9. This is in response to Rob Dale’s comment:
    First, NWS is only one of many government agencies. Second, forecasts are only one aspect offered by the weather and climate enterprise. Hindcasting and nowcasting data/products are just as critical as well. If NWS could provide forecasts with the best forecast accuracy possible, that would then mean no private sector role in the forecasting arena. Would that make the enterprise vibrant, without the private sector playing any role? On a practical level, however, NWS will always be faced with an ongoing challenge to continually improve forecast accuracy further because of the insurmountable, huge existing data gaps and forecast customization efforts required for delivering such accurate forecasts. From the latter perspective, this means that the private sector has played and will always play a prominent role in the forecasting arena. My own NWP research, within the private sector, over the past 10 years, shows that these public domain forecasts do not address the issue of a large data hole alluded to before that can only suitably be undertaken by all the sectors working together. A synergistic partnership among the government, academic, and private sectors can be forged because of these challenges/opportunities, where sectoral strengths are taken advantage of and weaknesses are de-emphasized. The question about whether NWS should buy forecasts from the private sector depends on what value the private sector adds to these forecasts. If the private sector does not add value (i.e., increase forecast accuracy), then NWS wouldn’t want to buy back forecasts from the private sector. I have not suggested the government repurchase the “same” forecasts from the private sector but purchase value-added forecasts (if any available). To delve into this issue a bit further here, NWS could indirectly provide more accurate forecasts via improved foundational data, resulting from the suggested public-private partnership, for a lot less taxpayer dollars, if such synergistic partnership could be forged.

  10. In response to the comment by Vitality in Canadian Meteorological Enterprise:
    I agree that I did not specifically talk about government’s commitments to making data openly available to the public. The problem is that government’s commitments do not include any specific data quality or data quality goals. As long as all data quality issues and data limitations are clearly stated, making such data available openly to the public is fine. However, when the private sector adds significant value to the foundational pubic domain data, made available openly, the suggested public-private partnership would lead to significantly better data/products for the user community. In this case, someone would have to pay for the improvements made possible by the private sector. My point is that the government sector can buy, only if it chooses to do so, some essential and improved data from the private sector, while the private sector serves the needs of the larger user sector that is willing to pay for such improved data.

  11. This is in response to Daniel McCarthy’s comment:
    The web (or internet) is a highly effective data exchange vehicle that can be used by all three sectors. From this standpoint, it cannot be considered a distinct sectoral pathway in itself, in the sense of what I illustrated in the blog post. In other words, this data exchange vehicle can be part of any of the three Pathways described in the blog post. No, this will not be considered competition to any of the sectors.

  12. “If NWS could provide forecasts with the best forecast accuracy possible, that would then mean no private sector role in the forecasting arena.”
    That’s obviously wrong. The value of forecasts involves the decision-making process of forecast users, something which the private sector is ideally suited to assist with. The public sector, because of the wide variety of users for the forecasts, is poorly equipped to do this.
    The goal of the private sector is maximizing value for users, not the quality of the forecasts (correspondence of forecasts and events.) See Murphy, A. H., 1993: What Is a Good Forecast? An Essay on the Nature of Goodness in Weather Forecasting.Wea. Forecasting, 8, 281-293.

  13. This is in response to Harold Brooks:
    Thanks for emphasizing one of the key points of my blog post, i.e., the critical role of the private sector in the weather and climate enterprise. I would personally label “the theoretically extreme scenario in which the NWS chose to provide the best forecasts, without any private sector role” as “impractical.”
    Murphy 1993 is a good read, although some points Murphy makes need further discussion. In the context of the points made in Murphy, I just want to mention that value is the ultimate measure of how good a forecast is. For a forecast to be of value, implicitly the forecast will have to be consistent and of high quality as well.

  14. One of the main points of Murphy is that it’s not true, implicitly, or otherwise, that forecasts have to be of high quality to be of value. Quality and value have a complex relationship and there are many real-world cases in which lower quality forecasts have higher value than higher quality forecasts.

  15. Harold,
    Like I said in my previous comment, while Murphy makes some good points, some of them require further discussion. Since the point you have brought up is not central to my blog post, I suggest we move on. We can talk further offline, if you would like.

Comments are closed.