The Short and Long of Sequestration Forecasts

By now your head is probably spinning with all the conflicting forecasts what the Federal sequestration will do to us. (For a sample, try the Washington Post’s compilation of various projections.) If the collective disagreement of pundits indicates a kind of chaos–a bit like making a weather forecast when the numerical models just will never converge, an ensemble gone haywire–then you’re right. The reason for the confusion, says AMS Policy Program Director William Hooke, is that nobody knows what will happen. Here’s how he put it, in an interview with The Weather Channel’s Maria LaRosa on yesterday’s Morning Rush show:

TWC: What should we expect in particular for weather agencies? What is your top concern right now?
My top concern is the same as the weather top concern. The uncertainty in all this. We make good weather forecasts because we have practice. The case of the sequestration is something different. It’s unprecedented. We don’t know what will happen. That includes the policy makers at the top and the bench forecasters at the bottom.
TWC It may be a couple weeks before we some of the direct impacts? How are you folks preparing, or can you?
Hooke: You know, an NGO like the American Meteorological Society can’t do much but watch with horrified fascination. The real issue is what happens to those scientists and technicians who try to keep the radars prepared and keep staff online when bad weather occurs with little notice, and just be ready to protect property and to protect the American public.
TWC And the AMS gives out grants for all kinds of things, and how does that impact money that you guys give out?
Hooke: We’ll certainly be getting less and so we’ll be less capable in turn. We, like many private sector firms and academic researchers, depend a great deal on NOAA, the National Weather Service, and other federal agencies to keep things humming, particularly innovation, particularly improvements in forecasts and services.

However, as we know from weather forecasting, the short term may be overwhelmed by chaos and uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean seasonal or climate projections can’t have some teeth in them.  City College of New York physics professor Michael Lubell, who is also director of public relations for the American Physical Society, told Ira Flatow yesterday on National Public Radio’s Science Friday that the short term uncertainty is itself a determinant for the long term prospects of science:

One of the difficulties we have in science is that it’s not like a road project. You say, “well, we don’t have enough money to continue paving something today, we’ll call the crew off and bring them back six months or nine months from now.” Science—you cut it and the people aren’t coming back, facilities aren’t going to be opened again….
I think of this as taking a frog or taking a goose in a pot of water and we’re slowly heating it up, and eventually the goose gets cooked and by the time it gets cooked it’s too late to deal with it. That’s what’s going to happen to us.  Unfortunately the public doesn’t see it immediately, and I think the President probably made a mistake by trying to scare people, because you’re not going to see it at least for several months, if not then. It’s just going to be a slow erosion, and the case with science, as I said, is that erosion is not some you see easily.
I would argue…that the more devastating effects are the long-term effects. If you have a longer line at the airport today, put money back in and those lines will get shorter. If we remove our money from the investment—and let me just make a couple comments about this. I mean half of the economic growth since World War II was attributable to science and technology. One fact that people usually don’t know is that laser enabled technology accounts for one-third of our economy today, and they began with a small amount of government money more than 50 years ago.
[With cuts] the programs shut down forever. When people are smart, they find other things to do.