More light, less heat

UCAR Forum examines public-private partnerships

by Bob Henson

The weather in New Zealand is not always kind to that nation’s fabled flocks of sheep. On one winter’s day in the early 1990s, TV viewers watched lamb carcasses being hauled off, victims of a heavy snow that had been poorly predicted. Last September, in contrast, the hardy lambs on the evening news sported clear plastic coats, issued by shepherds based on a timely forecast of cold and wind.

It’s a matter of applying science, fostering enthusiasm, and serving customers, according to John Lumsden. A former executive with Labatt’s Breweries in Canada, Lumsden has headed up New Zealand’s weather service, MetService, since it was transformed into a for-profit corporation (though still government-owned) in 1992. Lumsden uses the tale of the televised sheep as an example of the improvements he says a private perspective can bring to public weather concerns. His keynote speech kicked off a UCAR Forum, 8–9 October, dedicated to the topic of public-private partnerships.

Other UCAR meetings on the topic since the late 1990s have sparked occasionally heated debate. This time, however, the two days of discussion produced more light and less heat than many expected. “It’s been a remarkably peaceful conversation,” observed UCAR president Richard Anthes toward the end of the forum. The 100-plus representatives on hand from UCAR universities, plus a number of representatives from the private sector and government, finished with a set of guiding principles for teamwork, including a list of roadblocks (both real and perceived) and areas of opportunity.

The fine art of privatization

According to Lumsden, New Zealand’s weather service was rife with “many, many inefficiencies” when he arrived on the scene. Lumsden characterized the service circa 1992 as full of bright, qualified people hobbled by cynicism, shabby surroundings, and internecine conflict among forecasters, observers, and managers. In his first years, Lumsden contracted out observing functions, pared down administrative overhead, added profit sharing, and beefed up staff development, including training for media and outreach, marketing, and team building.

With a decade now under its belt, MetService has shown an overall improvement in forecast quality, said Lumsden. The net cost of public weather functions to the New Zealand government has been cut in half, and user complaints have dropped tenfold. The guiding principle is to be “roughly right” instead of “precisely irrelevant,” he added, paraphrasing economist Maynard Keynes. “A perfect forecast five minutes late is no good compared to a pretty good one that’s on time.”

What happens to research when the profit motive enters a national weather agency? In New Zealand’s case, the research arm of its weather service was combined with oceanographic and fisheries disciplines to become a national institute of water and atmospheric research. “The distraction of the research activity wasn’t there,” said Lumsden, which he thinks may have helped forecasters better focus on the task at hand. “I think it’s a continuing argument whether [research and operations] are better combined or separate.” Instead of doing research itself, MetService leverages work carried out elsewhere. For example, it uses the Penn State/NCAR mesoscale model (MM5) as its operational numerical model. As for long-term monitoring, said Lumsden, “Making money out of climate data is probably a lost cause. It’s going to have to come out of the public purse.”

Universities in business, or a business’s university?

Lumsden’s talk was followed by comments from a panel of experts with an array of perspectives on public and private weather functions:

• Ray Ban, executive vice president, The Weather Channel (TWC)

• Kelvin Droegemeier, Regents’ Professor of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma (OU)

• Maria Pirone, director of strategic planning, Weather Services International (acquired by TWC owner Landmark Communications
in 2000)
• Jeff Reaves, UCAR associate vice- president for business services

• David Rogers, director, Office of Weather and Air Quality, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The themes of culture, communication, and trust cropped up repeatedly. Several panelists and audience members expressed a desire to ditch preconceptions and brainstorm together on how the three sectors of the meteorological world—private, federal, and academic—might work together to benefit all.

Such a job won’t be easy. “There are huge cultural differences between these three sectors, and big chasms in communication,” noted Mike Eilts, a 20-year veteran of NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. Eilts left NSSL in 2000 to head Weather Decision Technologies, a start-up located only a couple of miles from his former employer. “In some ways I was ostracized,” says Eilts. “I was now the bad guy on the other side of the street.”

By the same token, private industry may not always grasp some tenets of the academic culture. Droegemeier recalled a company that gave OU $500,000 for an endowed chair, then felt entitled to dictate what the new professor would study. “Once we sat down with [company executives] and explained what was going on,” recalls Droegemeier, “they were completely happy with the arrangement.” Sometimes a simple phone call is enough to avert a bigger misunderstanding, he added.

Another recurring theme: Today’s meteorology students will work from a much broader palette of employment options than their professors. “The private sector has emerged as the dominant employer in meteorology,” Droegemeier said. Some schools have already responded. OU has a master’s track in professional meteorology, while Cornell University has tracks oriented toward climatology and operational forecasting. “What meteorology needs going forward,” said Mike Smith (WeatherData), “is practitioners, . . . people who can add a lot of value to what they do.”

The opportunities are out there—in fact, many remain untapped, according to the panelists, which means the various sectors need not feel they’re fighting over a shrinking pie. “Right now a lot of people don’t perceive meteorology as being as valuable as we know it is,” said Smith. The director of NCAR’s Research Applications Program, Brant Foote, maintained that many industries “are used to living with the inefficiencies, and they’re not keen enough to understand where they might be helped, . . . where a little bit of research might go a long way.”

The shape of tomorrow’s weather world

It isn’t preordained that cross-sector collaboration will broaden the number of players in the weather field. Indeed, Lumsden believes a few behemoths may emerge—perhaps six or seven entities worldwide—as public-private partnerships coalesce. Many smaller and poorer nations have marginal weather services that could be essentially contracted out, he asserted. Whatever shape the future holds, participants agreed that it’s in the best interest of all sectors to meet, think, and plan consciously about it. The process could take three to five years, said TWC’s Ban. The end result, as he pictured it: “Bickering would be minimized, competition between the segments might be minimized, and the general adversarial dialogue that sometimes occurs today would go away.”

The discussion continued at UCAR, 10–11 October at the biennial meeting of department heads and chairs, sponsored by the American Meteorological Society (joined by the American Geophysical Union this year for the first time). Executive director Ronald McPherson noted that the first AMS Users’ Conference will take place at the society’s annual meeting this February. The focus will be on products related to water resources. In addition, a UCAR-AMS workshop on partnerships is being considered for the summer of 2003. Meanwhile, forum organizers are looking for “champions” from each sector to move partnerships along—as Reaves put it, people “who believe in the possibilities and are willing to commit.”

To get involved with forum follow-up activities, contact UCAR vice-president for corporate affairs Jack Fellows, jfellows@ucar.edu, 303-497-8655. See also the article by John Dutton, “Opportunities and Priorities in a New Era for Weather and Climate Services,” in the September issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

 

Key points from the UCAR Forum

More detail on these and other elements of the forum can be found in the online summary (see “On the Web”).

Actual barriers to partnership

  • cultural differences (open exchange vs. proprietary information)
  • differing time frames (short term for industry, longer term for academia)

Perceived barriers to partnership

  • zero-sum game (if one party benefits, another loses)
  • loss of control (sharing resources seen as inherently disadvantageous)
  • cultural stereotypes (elitist academe, money-grubbing private sector, stodgy bureaucracy)
  • perceived objectivity of public vs. privately funded research

Opportunities

  • realize common ground
  • increase the overall weather market
  • raise weather awareness of underserved sectors
  • serve as model for weather services in developing countries

What can universities do?

  • train interested students to be practitioners as opposed to researchers
  • expose them to business principles
  • inform private sector about possible venues for collaboration (such as the U.S. Weather Research Program)
  • help get people into the weather pipeline early (middle school or even sooner)

 


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