Weather and climate directly affect the U.S. economy and the health and safety of its citizens. Weather-related damages amount to $20 billion per year, and hundreds of millions of dollars are saved each year by taking action based on improved forecasts, warnings, and other weather services. A growing number of people are moving to areas that are vulnerable to extreme weather events, increasing the social and economic costs of weather-related disasters. Because of the pervasive influence of weather and climate on society, it is important to have the best weather and climate information the nation can afford. In the United States, the weather and climate enterprise has evolved since its inception in the 1800s to include three sectors, each of which plays a unique and vital role:
The National Weather Service (NWS) is responsible for protecting life and property and enhancing the national economy. To carry out its mission, it maintains an infrastructure of observing, communications, data processing, and prediction systems and conducts research on which the public (federal, state, and local government agencies), private, and academic sectors rely. It also negotiates data exchange agreements with other countries.
Academia is responsible for advancing the science and educating future generations of meteorologists.
The private sector (weather companies, meteorologists working for private companies or as private consultants, and broadcast meteorologists)
is responsible for creating products and services tailored to the needs of their company or clients and for working with the NWS to communicate forecasts and warnings that may affect public safety.
This three-sector system has led to an extensive and flourishing set of weather services that are of great benefit to the U.S. public and to major sections of the U.S. economy. However, the system also has a certain level of built-in friction between the public, private, and academic sectors for the following reasons:
each sector contributes in varying degrees to the same activities— data collection, modeling and analysis, product development, and information dissemination—making it difficult to clearly differentiate their roles;
the sectors have different philosophies of sharing data and models with the other sectors and the general public;
advances in scientific understanding and technology permit new user communities to emerge and change what the sectors are capable of doing and want to do; and
all members do not share the same expectations and understanding of the proper roles and responsibilities of the three sectors.
Some level of tension is an inevitable but acceptable price to pay for the excellent array of weather and climate products and services our nation enjoys. But the frictions and inefficiencies of the existing system can probably be reduced, permitting the three sectors to live in greater harmony.
At the request of the NWS, the Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services was established to undertake the following tasks:
Examine the present roles of the public, private, and academic sectors in the provision and use of weather, climate, and related environmental information and services in the United States.
Identify the effects that advances in observing, modeling, forecasting, and information dissemination technologies may have on the respective roles of the public, private, and academic sectors.
Examine the interface between the various sectors, identify barriers to effective interaction, and recommend changes in policies or practices that could improve the potential for providing weather and climate information.
Make recommendations regarding how to coordinate the roles most effectively among the various sectors.
Advances in science and technology are driving the evolution of the weather and climate enterprise. As little as a decade ago, federal govern-
ment agencies collected nearly all of the data and developed and ran nearly all of the forecast models. Today, state and local government agencies, universities, and private companies deploy their own instruments, and some run their own models or models developed by others. Advances in scientific understanding and modeling will soon enable more accurate seasonal to interannual forecasting, thereby creating both new opportunities for providing climate services and the potential for new sources of friction between the sectors. The rapid changes in science and technology underlying weather and climate forecasting are likely to continue. Therefore, the committee’s primary conclusion is that it is counterproductive and diversionary to establish detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can do what and with which tools. Instead, efforts should focus on improving the processes by which the public and private providers of weather services interact. Improving these processes would also help alleviate the misunderstanding and suspicion that exist between some members of the sectors. However, there is no “magic bullet” that will bring “fair weather” to the partnership. The recommendations below are first steps on a journey that will take time, effort, and persistence to complete.
STRENGTHENING THE PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
In an attempt to foster collaboration rather than conflict, the NWS has adopted a series of policies to guide its interactions with the private sector since the 1970s. The 1991 public-private partnership policy and its predecessors have taken the same approach—to define the roles of the NWS and the private sector and to provide guidelines for avoiding competition. However, defining exactly what activities should be carried out by the NWS is a matter of interpretation—social, political, and legal—and the interpretation changes as new laws are enacted. Moreover, the current policy specifies that the NWS will not provide services that the private sector is currently providing or could provide, unless otherwise directed by law. This guideline is untenable because the private sector can now do much of what the NWS legitimately does, and there may be good public policy reasons for the NWS to carry out certain activities, even if the private sector does or could do them. Although the 1991 policy does not work as intended, the committee believes that a policy is necessary—one that emphasizes processes for interactions among the sectors and takes account of newer federal government laws and policies.
Recommendation 1. The NWS should replace its 1991 public-private partnership policy with a policy that defines processes for making decisions on products, technologies, and services, rather than rigidly defining the roles of the NWS and the private sector.
Ideally, the policy would be expanded beyond the NWS to include all relevant parts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that participate in the weather and climate enterprise. These include the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which operates meteorological satellites and the long-term weather and climate archive; the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research division, which operates research laboratories; and the NWS, which generates forecasts and provides weather and climate services.
Any policy to guide the nature of partnerships should be developed in consultation with all stakeholders. Mechanisms for facilitating communication among the sectors include an NWS advisory committee and periodic meetings of stakeholders. An advisory committee could deal with a variety of strategic issues associated with a particular sector or with the weather and climate enterprise as a whole. To be effective, however, its membership must include representation from all sectors (both users and providers of weather services), and NWS management must be serious about listening to its advice. Establishing such an advisory committee would send a strong signal to the broader meteorological community that the NWS really wants input that will benefit the weather and climate enterprise.
Recommendation 2. The NWS should establish an independent advisory committee to provide ongoing advice to it on weather and climate matters. The committee should be composed of users of weather and climate data and representatives of the public, private, and academic sectors, and it should consider issues relevant to each sector as well as to the set of players as a group, such as (but not limited to)
improving communication among the sectors,
creating or discontinuing products,
enhancing scientific and technical capabilities that support the NWS mission,
improving data quality and timeliness, and
disseminating data and information.
Scientific meetings, NWS-sponsored user meetings, and the occasional forum on the public-private partnership provide a means for improving communication among the sectors. Because the meetings are outside the NWS policy-making process, they complement the recommended advisory committee. However, the committee believes that meetings held to deal with partnership issues should be institutionalized by an organization seen as neutral by all parties. The American Meteorological Society, whose mem-
bership is evenly divided among the sectors and which has hosted such meetings since 1948, may provide a possible venue for a sector to air its complaints and seek creative solutions.
Recommendation 3. The NWS and relevant academic, state, and private organizations should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic dedicated venue for the weather enterprise as a whole to discuss issues related to the public-private partnership.
ENHANCING THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE THREE SECTORS
In addition to creating or institutionalizing the processes described above, there are steps that each sector can take on its own to improve the effectiveness of the weather and climate enterprise.
National Weather Service
To fulfill its mission to protect life and property and enhance the national economy by issuing weather warnings, watches, and advisories, the NWS must collect high-quality data, develop and run atmospheric models, and generate forecasts. The models and products (including forecasts) developed in this information chain are available to the public, where they are used by individuals as well as by the academic and private sectors to create specialized weather products, tools, and models. This arrangement satisfies the government’s obligation to make its information as widely available as possible to those who paid for it—the taxpayers. Although some in the private sector would prefer that the NWS not issue forecasts, the committee believes that scientific, legal, and economic arguments overwhelmingly support the continued dissemination of NWS forecasts and other weather products. Not only has the infrastructure supporting the forecast already been paid for, but disseminating forecasts provides a measure of visibility to the NWS, which helps ensure continued congressional support for the expensive infrastructure needed to generate weather and climate services.
Recommendation 4. The NWS should continue to carry out activities that are essential to its mission of protecting life and property and enhancing the national economy, including collecting data; ensuring their quality; issuing forecasts, warnings, and advisories; and providing unrestricted access to publicly funded observations, analyses, model results, forecasts, and related information products in a timely manner and at the lowest possible cost to all users.
The expected improvements in meteorological observations, scientific
understanding, and computational and communications technologies will create many opportunities for improving NWS information services. Despite objections from some in the private sector, it is both efficient and suitable for the NWS to adopt commonly available technologies that improve its ability to carry out its mission. In particular, Internet and digital database technologies offer powerful, low-cost means of increasing the availability and usefulness of NWS data, forecasts, and other weather products to a large population.
Recommendation 5. The NWS should make its data and products available in Internet-accessible digital form. Information held in digital databases should be based on widely recognized standards, formats, and metadata descriptions to ensure that data from different observing platforms, databases, and models can be integrated and used by all interested parties in the weather and climate enterprise.
To meet evolving user needs within a limited budget, the NWS must decide on an ongoing basis which products to create and which to phase out. Such decisions must balance a number of sometimes conflicting objectives, such as operating efficiently, keeping the public-private partnership healthy, and ensuring that products benefiting the public are made available. For example, it is socially beneficial for the NWS to create products related to public health, even if the private sector sees such products as a business opportunity. The NWS has recently developed guidelines for deciding which products to incorporate into operations, although they do not cover all the complexities of product development. However, the NWS has yet to formulate guidelines for determining which products and services to discontinue.
Recommendation 6. The NWS should (1) improve its process for evaluating the need for new weather and climate products and services that meet new national needs, and (2) develop processes for discontinuing dissemination of products and services that are specific to particular individuals or organizations or that are not essential to the public.
The 135 NWS weather and river forecast offices are mandated to create products tailored to their geographic region. The local offices are given a certain level of autonomy, which fosters innovation and benefits the weather and climate enterprise. However, the large number of offices makes it difficult to communicate and enforce NWS policy. As a result, the products created by the forecast offices vary, as does their attitude toward cooperation with the private sector. The creation of standard home pages for all NWS offices should help present a more uniform face to the public, but
more has to be done to ensure that the NWS offices act in a way that is consistent with overarching NWS policies yet permits creativity at the local level.
Recommendation 7. NWS headquarters and regional managers should develop an approach to managing the local forecast offices that balances a respect for local innovation and creativity with greater control over the activities that affect the public-private partnership, especially those that concern the development and dissemination of new products or services.
The public relies on the trustworthiness of NWS data; the private sector relies on high-quality, timely NWS data to produce specialized products for clients; and all sectors rely on the NWS to maintain scientifically valid meteorological and climatological databases. Consequently, the NWS must ensure that its data and information products are accurate, reliable, objective, openly available, and produced and reported according to rigorous scientific standards. Feedback from the community suggests that the NWS is generally doing a good job in these areas, although greater attention should be paid to ensuring the scientific validity of information generated by automated systems and to adopting probabilistic methods for communicating uncertainties where appropriate.
Recommendation 8. The NWS should continue to adopt and improve probabilistic methods for communicating uncertainties in the data and forecasts where such methods are accepted as scientifically valid.
In addition to maintaining standards for existing instruments and products, the NWS is well positioned to play a lead role in developing standards and formats for new data sources (e.g., state and local government agencies, private weather companies) and for new technologies (e.g., wireless communications). Although incompatible formats are inevitable in a highly distributed and rapidly evolving system such as the weather and climate information system, harmonizing standards greatly increases the usefulness of new data sources and avenues of communication and creates a “level playing field” for many prospective users.
Recommendation 9. The NWS should retain its role as the official source of instrumentation, data, and data collection standards to ensure that scientific benchmarks for collecting, verifying, and reporting data are maintained. It should lead efforts to follow, harmonize, and extend standards, formats, and metadata to ensure that data from NWS and non-NWS net-
works, databases, and communications technology can be integrated and used with relative ease.
The private sector has made many valuable contributions to the weather and climate enterprise, from satisfying user needs for specialized products not developed by the NWS, to collecting local data that supplement the national network, to ensuring the widest possible dissemination of NWS watches, warnings, and advisories. Private sector use of NWS data, which form the basis of many commercial products, greatly increases the value of the data and further justifies the high cost of the national observing system infrastructure. In response to an invitation to all sectors issued by the committee, a relatively small number of commercial weather companies highlighted problems with NWS data quality and timeliness and with the public-private partnership, particularly regarding existing or potential duplication of effort. Problems concerning data quality are addressed in Recommendation 4, and problems concerning the public-private partnership are addressed in Recommendations 1 and 2. However, some of the letters suggest that significant misunderstanding exists about the organizational structure of NOAA and the laws governing the actions of the federal government and academia. In particular, the NOAA laboratories, the National Climatic Data Center, and academic organizations develop products and services—some of which may be commercially viable—to carry out their respective missions. These organizations are not bound by the current NWS public-private partnership policy. Rather, if they wish to sell products, they abide by technology transfer laws and conflict-of-interest policies (see Recommendation 11, below). The private sector should take care to avoid misinterpreting the legitimate actions of other sectors as partnership violations. Such misinterpretation creates frustration and mistrust in the other sectors.
Recommendation 10. The commercial weather sector should work with the other sectors, using mechanisms such as those proposed in this report, to improve the techniques and processes by which the weather and climate enterprise as a whole can minimize friction and inefficiency.
The academic sector carries out much of the research that supports advances in operational meteorology in both the public and the private sectors. In addition, it plays an essential role in the weather and climate enterprise by educating the next generation of scientists and practitioners.
Under the Bayh-Dole Act, universities (and government laboratories) are encouraged to commercialize their research results. Meteorology departments are increasingly taking advantage of opportunities for science and technology transfer by creating independent for-profit companies. Most have guidelines in place for creating a bright line between the department and the spin-off company and for avoiding conflicts of interest. Others can learn from the best practices of industries that have gone down this path in the past, such as the computer and biotechnology industries. Not only must appropriate practices be followed, but they must be perceived by the outside community as being followed.
Recommendation 11. Universities seeking to commercialize weather-related research results should follow transparent procedures for transferring technology and for avoiding conflicts of interest. These procedures should be given wide exposure to remove perceptions of unfair competition.
Each sector in the weather enterprise has different motivations and rewards for working together. The key benefits of widespread cooperation are increased efficiency and the availability of more and better weather and climate products. Partnerships are most likely to succeed when the sectors maintain an ongoing dialogue, and when they have a mutual respect for and understanding of each partner’s skills, cultural approach, and organization framework. A key element of the latter is public attribution of the contributions (i.e., data and models) of the other sectors. The committee notes that none of the sectors consistently recognizes and gives attribution to the contributions of the other sectors. Such attribution is also important for gaining public support for the large investments required in the weather and climate information system.