President’s Corner

University roles in the weather and climate services partnership

In February 2003 the National Research Council (NRC) issued the report Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services (see “On the Web”). I had the pleasure and privilege to serve as vice chair (John Armstrong was the chair) of the committee that wrote this report. It considers the three-way partnership among the public, private, and academic sectors in producing and delivering weather, climate, and related environmental services in the United States. Because of an overlap in the activities that the three sectors carry out, a certain amount of friction occurs, based on competition and perceived unfairness. Our committee was asked to make recommendations to reduce the friction and improve the three-way partnership.

We came to an important conclusion: “Despite sometimes vocal complaints from a small number of weather companies, cooperation among the sectors, rather than conflict, appears to be the norm.” Nevertheless, the report concludes that improvements in the relationship among the three sectors are possible, and it gives a number of recommendations for achieving an even more productive and harmonious relationship.

Perhaps not surprisingly, increased communication among the sectors was one of the primary recommendations. The report includes 28 specific complaints, all from the private sector, received in response to a solicitation of all three sectors. Many of the complaints were a result of misinformation or misunderstandings. The October 2002 UCAR Forum, which looked into actual and perceived barriers to constructive partnerships and new opportunities afforded by stronger partnerships was a step toward improving cross-sector communications.

Three sectors and their changing roles

Historically the three sectors of U.S. meteorology have had rather distinct missions.

  • The government, with support of taxpayers, has developed and operated observational systems such as the radiosonde network, satellites, and radars. It also has collected observational data, developed and run numerical forecast models, issued forecasts and warnings to the public, and conducted research.
  • The academic sector has educated future generations of scientists, forecasters, and business people. It also has carried out research, generally supported by the government, which has led to improvements in scientific understanding and observational technologies. These advances from the academic community have contributed greatly to improvements in government and private sector operations.
  • The private sector, again with government support, has built the observational systems, computers, and information systems required by the government in order to produce forecasts and warnings. The private sector has also taken government- produced data, forecasts, and warnings and created value-added products for the public (via mass media) or for paying customers with specialized needs.

These respective roles, once fairly clear and distinct, are becoming more and more blurred as technological advances such as the Internet and increasingly inexpensive computers make it possible for each sector to carry out activities that used to be exclusively the prerogative of other sectors. For example, universities formerly received output from government weather-forecast models via facsimile. These maps seldom went beyond the departments in which they were posted. In the 1990s, some universities began posting their own graphical depictions of model output on the Internet, making them available to the public at no cost (a point of contention for some private firms who see such postings as unfair competition). Going a step further, it is now commonplace for universities to run weather forecast models in real time, once possible only at large national meteorological centers.

Encouraged by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities and research institutions such as UCAR/NCAR and NOAA’s Forecast Systems Laboratory are developing spinoff companies or commercial endeavors from their intellectual property that compete with the private sector. The public education and outreach activities of the academic sector may also appear to compete with the private sector activities of delivering weather and climate products to customers, as noted above. Because of perceived unfairness and competition, some private companies are trying to restrict what NOAA and the National Weather Service (NWS) can do, including even the issuance of day-to-day forecasts.

The private sector also carries out some activities that are primarily the domain of the public and academic sectors. For example, some private companies carry out their own research, produce operational observations (such as the National Lightning Detection Network), and run their own weather prediction models. In not too many years the private sector, or a consortium of private companies and universities, will be able to compete directly with the NWS in collecting and analyzing observations, developing and running models, and issuing weather and climate forecasts. I believe it is an open question whether developing a complete and independent observational and forecasting system and thereby competing fully with the NWS would be the optimal use of private or academic resources or the best means of serving the public. However, we need to acknowledge the possibility that it might happen.

Our committee saw no end to the advancing science and technologies, and therefore no end to the increasing potential for overlap between the roles of the three sectors. Thus we recommend a number of processes to improve communication and better manage the inevitable tensions that will continue to arise.

A level playing field

In developing our report, we talked a lot about the concept of a “level playing field.” Like the concept of “fairness,” (see next section) people perceive the concept of a level playing field in different ways.

At present, the government invests approximately $2.7 billion per year in meteorology and supporting research, 93% of which is channeled through NOAA and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Transportation. NASA spends approximately $1.5 billion annually developing satellites to observe and learn about the Earth system, and much of this research eventually leads to improvements in operations. These costs are often justified by the importance of weather and climate to society. Recent estimates are that weather and climate affects between 20% and 40% of the $10 trillion U.S. economy. Thus the total government investment of approximately $4.2 billion in the weather and climate enterprise, including research and operations, is of the order of a quarter of a percent or so of the magnitude of the effect of weather and climate on society. This investment is roughly eight times the $500 million U.S. commercial weather industry that it supports.

Given our government’s large investment in weather and climate, a level playing field can be defined as a system in which all government-supported data, information, and products, including forecasts and warnings, are made available to everyone at no cost or minimal cost. The development of the Internet has made this far more feasible than it was in the past. The committee agreed that everyone should be able to access radar or satellite images, NWS model forecasts, and the raw observations themselves to use however they like—whether to plan personal or business activities, carry out further research, or develop a variety of products for commercial purposes.

Public goods and the differing concepts of fairness

Our committee also spent a good deal of time discussing the concept of “public goods” and fairness. According to the NRC 1997 report Bits of Power: Issues in Global Access to Scientific Data, a public good is one that is characterized by nondepletability and nonexcludability. Nondepletable means that a good or product cannot be used up; providing the product to one party does not diminish the amount of that product available to other parties. Nonexcludability means that the good or product produces benefits from which others cannot be excluded and which cannot be easily constrained only to those who pay. The classic case of nonexcludability is that of national defense: the military protects the entire country, not just those willing to pay. The issuance of tornado warnings and their broadcast over public sirens or mass media is an example of a public good. More generally, scientific information, including weather data and forecasts, is a public good because it is both nondepletable and nonexcludable. Government functions that have public-good properties are difficult to privatize. The NRC report presents principles for those data and information activities that are appropriate for the government to carry out and those for which it is less appropriate.

Another issue related to interactions among the three sectors is the concept of fairness. Our committee commissioned a paper by Edward Zajac (University of Arizona), “On Fairness and Self-Serving Biases in the Privatization of Environmental Data.” This paper, which appears as Appendix E in the Fair Weather report, is a must-read for anyone who invokes the name of fairness to resolve or prevent conflicts, including those related to the competition for resources.

A considerable body of research exists on perceptions of fairness and self-serving behavior. Among a number of common patterns of human behavior that have been identified by this research, three are especially relevant to the three-way weather and climate partnership. These include:

  • status quo rights (I am entitled to a product or a privilege simply because I have enjoyed it in the past)
  • perceived contracts (I am entitled to something because of a perceived agreement, even if the perceived agreement is neither a legal one nor specific)
  • cognitive dissonance (misunderstanding of the facts, intentional or unintentional; ignoring facts or information that do not support my position while exaggerating those that do)

Zajac’s essay argues that institutions must consider these endemic aspects of cognitive dissonance, self-delusion, and self-serving behaviors. The negative impacts of these dysfunctional behaviors may be mitigated through an open, transparent, and credible system of information distribution. Our report’s recommendations are aimed at fostering transparency and credibility in the processes leading to development of government policies and practices related to weather and climate services, so that they will be perceived as fair by most parties.

In summary, our committee concluded that the three-way partnership is serving the nation well, but that conflicts will continue to arise as science and technology advance and the boundaries between the sectors change. Each sector has different motivations and rewards for working together. However, cooperation among the three sectors will benefit each of them in the long run through increased efficiency, the availability of better weather and climate products, and better service to society. I would be naive to believe that our report will completely eliminate conflicts among the sectors, but it has been received well in the fora in which I have heard it presented and discussed. I am optimistic that it will help guide the debate in the right direction. •Rick Anthes



Also in this issue...

How random is our winter weather?

North America's ozone: a closer look

Super-sizing a community data trove

Chasing mesoscale monsters

Larry Winter: NCAR's new Deputy director

UCAR Community Calendar

Web Watch

Governance Update