Our ability to observe and forecast severe weather events has improved markedly over the past few decades. Forecasts of snow and ice storms, hurricanes and storm surge, extreme heat, and other severe weather events are made with greater accuracy, geographic specificity, and lead time to allow people and communities to take appropriate protective measures. Yet, hazardous weather continues to cause loss of life and result in other preventable social costs. Nearly 6,000 people are killed and more than 445,000 people are injured in weather-related vehicle crashes on U.S. roadways each year. Also of concern are the many examples of severe weather events that had accurate forecasts and widespread warnings yet nonetheless resulted in considerable loss of life or other adverse outcomes—for example, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when more than 100 deaths were reported, and the August 2017 Hurricane Harvey–related flooding disaster in south Texas, which led to more than 60 deaths and required many thousands of emergency rescues.
There is growing recognition that a host of social and behavioral factors affect how we prepare for, observe, predict, respond to, and are impacted by weather hazards. For example, an individual’s response to a severe weather event may depend on their understanding of the forecast, prior experience with severe weather, concerns about their other family members or property, their capacity to take the recommended protective actions, and numerous other factors. Indeed, it is these factors that can determine whether or not a potential hazard becomes an actual disaster. Thus, it is essential to bring to bear expertise in the social and behavioral sciences (SBS)—including disciplines such as anthropology, communication, demography, economics, geography, political science, psychology, and sociology—to understand how people’s knowledge, experiences, perceptions, and attitudes shape their responses to weather risks and to understand how human cognitive and social dynamics affect the forecast process itself.
THE EVOLVING WEATHER ENTERPRISE
The National Weather Service and the broader “weather enterprise”1 have recognized that improving public safety requires more than just the provision of timely, accurate
1 The “weather enterprise” includes the network of government agencies, private-sector companies, and academic institutions that provide weather services to the nation.
weather forecasts, and they have been expanding their operational goals accordingly. There is growing emphasis on helping individuals and communities reduce vulnerability and mitigate risks of hazardous weather well before an event strikes, and on supporting the efforts of emergency managers, transportation officials, and others who help protect public safety when hazardous weather approaches and who conduct response, rescue, and recovery efforts when hazardous weather strikes.
Meeting these more ambitious goals requires a paradigm shift in the weather enterprise to make social and behavioral sciences an integral part of research and operations. As illustrated in Figure S.1, SBS research offers great potential not just for improving communications of hazardous weather warnings, but also for improving preparedness and mitigation for weather risks, for hazard monitoring, assessment, and forecasting processes; for emergency management and response; and for long-term recovery efforts.
A rapid pace of technological and institutional change within the weather enterprise also motivates the need for better incorporating the social and behavioral sciences. For instance, the ways that people get weather information have been proliferating, as seen in the tremendous growth of mobile weather apps and private companies that provide forecast information tailored for specific stakeholders. Continuing to advance public safety and well-being in the face of these changes requires insights from many different social science disciplines and research methods. It also requires new forms of engagement and partnership among the public, private, and academic providers of weather-related services.
STUDY CHARGE AND APPROACH
As part of their ongoing efforts to address these challenges, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a committee to explore and provide guidance on the challenges of integrating social and behavioral sciences within the weather enterprise. This task included assessing current SBS activities, describing the potential value of improved integration of SBS and barriers that impede this integration, developing a research agenda, and identifying infrastructural and institutional arrangements for successfully pursuing SBS-weather research and the transfer of relevant findings to operational settings (see the full Statement of Task in Box 1.2).
Another sponsor of this effort, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), asked the Committee to give specific consideration to issues related to road weather safety. Such issues deserve focused attention because vehicle
accidents are by far the largest cause of weather-related deaths and injuries and because in hazardous weather, drivers face unique vulnerabilities and opportunities to make choices that affect both their own safety and that of many others. Systems and technologies designed to convey road weather information to travelers continue to evolve, and transformative changes such as autonomous vehicles may fundamentally alter how people deal with hazardous weather in their vehicles. SBS research is critical for designing safe, effective road weather information systems, and for understanding the needs and behavior of transportation managers and individual drivers in the face of such developments.
The Committee assembled to carry out this effort comprises a mix of experts in meteorology from the public, private, and academic sectors, and experts with training in social, behavioral, and related sciences, including, for example, communications, decision and policy sciences, human factors, and sociology. The Committee’s information-gathering work included public sessions at four meetings (including one full-day workshop), where they heard perspectives from many dozens of people across the weather enterprise.
RECENT ADVANCES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
A growing, diverse base of research addressing many dimensions of the weather-society interface has emerged over the past two decades or more. Among other topics, this research has explored factors that influence the interactions and decisions of weather enterprise professionals (e.g., forecasters, broadcast meteorologists, and emergency and transportation managers); the ways that people receive, interpret, and use hazardous weather forecasts, warnings, and preparedness information; the factors that underlie social vulnerability to different types of weather hazards; and the economic value of weather information to different sectors and stakeholders. Research advances are providing transformative opportunities for expanding these contributions to the weather enterprise, with new tools and models making it possible to collect, analyze, interpret, and apply data and information both at smaller and larger scales. For instance, eye-tracking technologies now enable fine-scale examination of the use of visual information in weather-related warnings. Studies of the spread and influence of information across broad social networks are now possible through social media analyses and the application of big data, data analytics, and cognitive computing.
As these research and data collection activities demonstrate, exciting opportunities exist for further advancing weather-related research, both within the social and behavioral sciences and across social and physical sciences. The innovative
research projects and activities to date have made demonstrable contributions both to the social and behavioral sciences and to meteorology. Achieving this potential however, requires addressing a variety of remaining barriers and challenges. This is still a nascent area of research. New insights are not yet routinely applied in practice, and the accumulation of knowledge has been hampered by the relatively small scale, intermittency, and inconsistency of investment in these kinds of efforts.
Financial support for research at the SBS-weather interface comes primarily from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NOAA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and FHWA programs. Exact funding levels are difficult to ascertain because the agencies do not typically track SBS investments separately, and many studies include SBS research as a component of a larger project. It appears, however, that the level of financial support for SBS-weather research is growing over time but is still a small fraction of the overall support of weather research by these agencies. Numerous reports going back many years have highlighted needs and challenges similar to those identified here, yet many of the same challenges remain today. Evidence indicates that overcoming these challenges is not idea-limited, but rather is resource-limited. The limited and inconsistent level of support for (both disciplinary and interdisciplinary) SBS-weather research to date has made it difficult to sustain a critical mass of robust studies, let alone to expand research capacity.
Organizations across the weather enterprise—including several federal agencies, private-sector weather companies, academic institutions, and professional societies—have shared motivations for actively contributing to the expansion of SBS-weather research through a variety of practical roles that are discussed in this report. Private-sector weather companies that carry out proprietary marketing research and audience surveys (often aimed largely at expanding viewership and market share) have opportunities for contributing more directly to fundamental new SBS insights; currently, however, these insights are not routinely shared with the research community more broadly. Public–private partnerships to support such research could yield great benefits for all involved, especially by advancing research that looks “end to end” across different parts of the weather forecasting and communication chain.
The regular collection of high-quality data is a critical foundation for progress in SBS research. Several existing federal agency data collection activities could, with modest additions and greater interagency coordination, significantly expand our understanding of the social context of hazardous weather. This includes, for instance, data collection activities led by NOAA (National Weather Service “Service Assessments,” Natural Hazard Statistics), by Federal Emergency Management Agency (Mitigation Assessment Team Program, National Household Survey), and by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Disaster Surveillance Workgroup programs, the National Center for Health Statistics’ mortality and injury data collection).
Some barriers that have inhibited progress in integrating SBS research within the weather enterprise are challenges that often arise when fostering interdisciplinary work among diverse science communities with different knowledge sets, research goals, and capacities. For example, rather than viewing SBS research as an “add-on” to weather research in the physical and engineering sciences, interdisciplinary approaches to weather-related research should be pursued from the outset of a project. Addressing these barriers requires a more realistic understanding (by meteorologists and others in the weather enterprise) of the diverse disciplines, theories, and research methodologies used within the social and behavioral sciences; of the time and resources needed for robust SBS research; and of the inherent limitations in providing simple, universally applicable answers to complex social science questions.
A FRAMEWORK TO SUSTAINABLY SUPPORT AND EFFECTIVELY USE SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE IN THE WEATHER ENTERPRISE
The government agencies, private-sector weather companies, and academic research institutions in the weather enterprise all have important roles to play in advancing the support for and application of research at the SBS-weather interface. Drawing on the insights of all those who contributed to this study, and our analysis of prior recommendations and current gaps and opportunities, we recommend the following as priority actions for the weather enterprise.
Invest in Leadership to Build Awareness
Effectively integrating social and behavioral sciences into organizations that have historically been rooted in the physical sciences requires leadership at the highest levels. Across the weather enterprise, leaders themselves need to invest time in understanding and spreading awareness to key constituencies and stakeholders of the many ways that social and behavioral sciences can help advance their organization’s goals related to weather readiness; hazard monitoring, assessment, and forecasting processes; emergency management and response; and long-term recovery. To aid these efforts, federal agencies, private companies, and leading academic programs within the weather enterprise need to augment their leadership teams to include executives and managers with strong and diverse social science backgrounds.
Recommendation: Leaders of the weather enterprise should take steps to accelerate this paradigm shift by underscoring the importance of SBS contributions in fulfilling their organizational missions and achieving operational and research goals, by bringing SBS expertise into their leadership teams, and by establishing relevant policies and goals to effect necessary organizational changes.
Build Capacity Throughout the Weather Enterprise
Building SBS research capacity is an enterprise-wide concern and responsibility. However, NOAA will need to play a central role in driving this research forward if it is to achieve the agency’s goals of improving the nation’s weather readiness. NOAA’s approach thus far has been to support an ad hoc mix of different types of SBS research activities (in-house, contractor led, directly competed), a variety of community- and capacity-building efforts, and supplemental support for NSF funding opportunities. While these efforts have individually made worthwhile contributions, collectively it has proven difficult to build sustained momentum for this field of research and to advance effective operational application of new insights gained.
Building capacity to support and implement SBS research depends on more sustained funding and increased intellectual resources, including professional staff trained and experienced in SBS research and its effective application. Several possible mechanisms for advancing SBS capacity at NOAA are described in this report, such as innovative public–private partnerships for interdisciplinary weather research, the development of an SBS-focused NOAA Cooperative Institute, or creation of SBS-focused programs within existing Cooperative Institutes. New sustained efforts by other key federal agencies such as NSF, DHS, and FHWA, and by academic institutions and research labs and the private sector, will also be critical for expanding capacity to support research and operations at the SBS-weather interface.
Just as important as the mechanisms for supporting research are the research assessment and agenda-setting activities, community-building programs, and information-sharing venues that help build a professional community working at the SBS-weather interface. Some existing platforms for sustained dialogue and strategic planning among public-sector, private-sector, and academic representatives (e.g., within the American Meteorological Society, National Weather Association, and American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials) could provide an effective base for SBS-related strategic planning as well. Interagency cooperation and collaboration could be pursued through mechanisms the federal government currently employs,
such as interagency working groups or university-based research centers supported by multiple agencies.
Fully engaging SBS in the ways discussed in this report would be a major adjustment for the weather enterprise and would require changes in the culture and operation of NOAA and many of its partner organizations. A concerted effort will be required to build capacity in future professionals at the undergraduate and graduate levels and in professionals working today to advance the needed SBS-weather research and its integration into operations. In particular, targeted training programs can help researchers from the social, physical, and engineering sciences better understand each other’s diversity of research methodologies and capacities and limitations. Viable approaches include interdisciplinary or joint degree programs, training at multi- or transdisciplinary centers in team science, building on NOAA’s currently developing SBS training efforts, and utilizing existing training platforms such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Emergency Management Institute and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) COMET program.
Recommendation: Federal agencies and private-sector weather companies should, together with leading SBS scholars with diverse expertise, immediately begin a planning process to identify specific investments and activities that collectively advance research at the SBS-weather interface. This planning process should also address critical supporting activities for research assessment, agenda setting, community building, and information sharing and the development of methods to collectively track funding support for this suite of research activities at the SBS-weather interface.
In addition, NOAA should build more sustainable institutional capacity for research and operations at the SBS-weather interface and should advance cooperative planning to expand SBS research among other federal agencies that play critical roles in weather-related research operations. In particular, this should include leadership from:
- NSF for a strong standing program that supports interdisciplinary research at the SBS-weather interface,
- FHWA for research related to weather impacts on driver choices and behaviors, and
- FEMA for research on the social and human factors that affect weather readiness, including decisions and actions by individuals, communities, and emergency management to prepare for, prevent, respond to, mitigate, and recover from weather hazards.
All parties in the weather enterprise should continue to develop and implement training programs for current and next generation workforces in order to expand capacity for SBS-weather research and applications in the weather enterprise.
Focus on Critical Knowledge Gaps
Building scientific understanding of weather-related actions, behaviors, and decisions will require investing wisely in research that addresses specific knowledge gaps and will help accelerate the maturation of the field overall. The Committee identified a series of key near-term research questions that span the different stages of weather communication and decision support shown in Figure S.1. The research questions, which are detailed in this report, can be broadly grouped into the following topical areas listed below.
Recommendation: The weather enterprise should support research efforts in the following areas:
- Weather enterprise system–focused research. To address this gap requires system-level studies of weather information production, dissemination, and evaluation; studies of how forecasters, broadcast media, emergency and transportation managers, and private weather companies create information and interact and communicate among themselves; studies of forecaster decision making, such as what observational platforms and numerical weather prediction guidance forecasters use and how they use them; studies of how to assess the economic value of weather services; and studies of team performance and organizational behavior within weather forecast offices and other parts of the weather enterprise.
- Risk assessments and responses, and factors influencing these processes. This includes research on how to better reach and inform special-interest populations that have unique needs, such as vehicle drivers and others vulnerable to hazardous weather due to their location, resources, and capabilities. It also includes research on how people’s interest in, access to, and interpretation of weather information, as well as their decisions and actions in response, are affected by their specific social or physical context, prior experiences, cultural background, and personal values.
- Message design, delivery, interpretation, and use. Persistent challenges include understanding how communicating forecast uncertainties in different formats influences understanding and action; how to balance consistency in messaging with needs for flexibility to suit different geographical, cultural, and
use contexts, including warning specificity and impact-based warnings; and how new communication and information technologies—including the proliferation of different sources, content, and channels of weather information—interact with message design and are changing people’s weather information access, interpretations, preparedness, and response.
To shift focus from forecasts of atmospheric conditions to the “protection of life and property” and “enhancement of the national economy” is not an incremental step but a major shift in emphasis for the weather enterprise. While efforts to advance meteorological research and numerical weather prediction should continue, realizing the greatest return on investment from such efforts requires fully engaging the social and behavioral sciences—both to expand the frontiers of knowledge within SBS disciplines and to foster more extensive application of these sciences across the weather enterprise.
Other areas of applied science—particularly in the realm of public health—offer important lessons about effective strategies for integrating social and behavioral sciences. For example, conditions found to be important for incorporating SBS into the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration include high-level leadership and grassroots champions within the agencies, sustained funding, and a strong core of in-house SBS expertise.
These experiences illustrate that it takes patience and persistence to build a robust presence of social and behavioral sciences within enterprises that have historically been dominated by other scientific disciplines. But with high-level leadership and vision, consistent financial support, and innovative partnerships, tremendous successes can indeed be achieved, to the great benefit of society at large.