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
Three sectors and their
Historically the three sectors of U.S. meteorology have had rather
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 NOAAs 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
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 governments 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 likewhether to plan personal or business activities,
carry out further research, or develop a variety of products for commercial
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:
Zajacs 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 reports 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