Weather is shaped by physical processes in our oceans and atmosphere, but the impacts of weather are shaped to an equal or greater degree by a wide variety of social and behavioral factors. To shift in focus from forecasts of
atmospheric temperatures and precipitation to the protection of life and property, and enhancement of the national economy, is not an incremental step but a major shift in emphasis. Yet, making this leap from weather forecast to application for societal benefit has long been a goal, reaching back to the origins of the weather enterprise (defined in Box 1.1).
Weather forecasts today provide greater geographical specificity and accuracy than ever before, but at the same time, individuals, businesses, institutions, and governments have grown more reliant on forecasts and thus more vulnerable to prediction errors, uncertainties, and misapplications. Accelerating social change challenges efforts to make effective use of forecasts for societal benefit. Society is urbanizing and increasingly connecting through new information and communication technologies. Businesses are moving to zero-inventory and just-in-time approaches, driven by global as well as local supply chains, and numerous economic sectors (e.g., agribusiness, energy, health, transportation, water resource management) thus have growing and changing vulnerabilities to extreme weather. As a result, realizing the fullest benefits of weather information increasingly requires understanding how individuals, households, organizations, communities, and social systems prepare for and respond to weather, and how weather information in all its manifestations informs decisions and behaviors.
For this reason, many previous reports from the National Academies have stressed the importance of social science for improving our nation’s weather readiness, forecasting, and response capabilities. When Weather Matters: Science and Service to Meet Critical Societal Needs (NRC, 2010) identified social science research and sustained collaboration between social and physical scientists as being as important as advances in physical science understanding and technical advances in numerical weather prediction for improving operational weather forecasts and weather disaster response. Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None (NRC, 2012) recommended that the National Weather Service create outside governance and evaluation mechanisms
that include social and behavioral science expertise in routine assessment of weather disasters. Similar recommendations have been made in numerous other reports by professional societies, scientific conferences, and other sources.
So why undertake another study on this topic? It is because the integration of social and behavioral sciences (referred to herein as SBS) into the work of the weather enterprise has proven challenging to actually accomplish in an effective, sustained manner.
It is a challenge that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other key partners across the weather enterprise have been struggling with for many years. Progress is evident (see Section 3.1), but occurring at a rate that many consider to be unacceptably slow and frustrating, both for the SBS and meteorological research communities (see Section 3.2). Several factors point to this as an opportune time for a fresh attempt to address this issue:
- The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NOAA have been experimenting with a number of different approaches for funding work at the SBS-weather interface over the past several years (see Section 3.1h). Partly as a result of this support, there is a growing community of social science practitioners studying weather-related issues (see Sections 3.1a,c,d). The expertise of this community, along with the momentum provided by previous assessments and reports, can now be drawn on to identify a forward-looking research agenda and to develop the frameworks and mechanisms needed for improved integration of SBS and meteorology across the weather enterprise and within numerous SBS research communities.
- Advances in SBS have enabled other areas of risk management—such as emergency response (NRC, 2006b), driver behavior (NRC, IOM, and TRB, 2007), aviation safety (Wiggins and Stevens, 2016), and public health (Smedley and Syme, 2000)—to make progress in incorporating SBS findings and expertise into their operations. This raises new opportunities for the weather enterprise to learn from these other experiences, both in terms of mechanisms for facilitating cross-disciplinary interaction and in terms of the new SBS scholarship generated in these efforts.
- There are numerous developments occurring with the weather enterprise itself related to new forecasting and communication technologies, capabilities, and approaches (NASEM, 2016a; NWS, 2017a) and a growing emphasis on impact-based decision support (NWS, 2013)—all of which raise critically important new questions that can only be addressed through dedicated SBS research.
- There is growing congressional interest in expanding the use of SBS in weather operations. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 enacted by Congress in April 2017 calls on NOAA to issue a research and development and research-to-operations plan that (among other things) “identifies, through consultation with NSF, the U.S. weather industry, and academic partners, research necessary to enhance the integration of social science knowledge into weather forecast and warning processes, including to improve the communication of threat information necessary to enable
improved severe weather planning and decision making on the part of individuals and communities.”
The goal of this study is to advance efforts to generate and apply SBS research in the contexts of weather preparedness, forecasting, and response. It aims to identify opportunities to accelerate relevant findings and better engage researchers and practitioners from multiple social science fields, and to advance strategies for fostering more cooperation in this endeavor among public, private, and academic sectors. We go beyond previous reports on this topic by taking a close look at the infrastructure that is needed to ensure SBS can thrive within the weather enterprise. Two of the key terms used in this effort are described in Box 1.1.
Over the past century, the development of global observation systems and numerical weather prediction models has enabled the weather enterprise to predict conditions conducive to hazards up to several days in advance and to issue timely warnings as events unfold. This leap in capabilities, resulting from long-term investments in physical science research, has paid enormous dividends to the public (Lazo et al., 2009). At the same time, many SBS disciplines have continued to advance theories, observational and modeling techniques, and experimental designs, which together have vastly increased our understanding of the human dimensions of many critical societal problems and concerns. Given the solid foundation existing in both the physical science and SBS domains, this is an opportune time for exciting interdisciplinary work that investigates critical weather and society issues from multiple angles. Disciplines such as meteorology, hydrology, and numerous social and behavioral sciences, each individually and jointly, hold great promise to continue advancing the weather enterprise.
This study was requested and sponsored by NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality (within the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research), NOAA’s National Weather Service, and the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (DOT/FHWA). The study was developed through discussions with key personnel within these agencies, and with an array of select experts from academic and private-sector backgrounds—in particular at a scoping meeting held in July 2015, where the main elements of this study were shaped. See the Official Task for the Committee in Box 1.2. Note that the Committee was asked not only to advise the sponsoring federal agencies, but to consider how the weather enterprise as a whole might help ensure that critical SBS research is robustly supported and effectively applied.
The Committee assembled to carry out this effort comprises a mix of experts in physical meteorology (coming from public, private, and academic sectors) and experts in several different social, behavioral, and related sciences. Some have direct experience working at the SBS-weather interface, while others were chosen to offer fresh perspectives from beyond this immediate realm of research. (See Appendix D for biosketches of the Committee members.)
Over the course of this study, the Committee held five in-person meetings to gather information and perspectives, to share and debate views, and to work on developing this report. From the outset, the Committee sought to build on the wide array of studies, reports, and workshop proceedings that have looked at various angles of this issue over the past several years. The Committee also sought to build on ideas and perspectives of many different stakeholders across the weather enterprise. To this end, more than 40 people interacted with the Committee over the course of the first four meetings, including one full-day workshop held in December 2016. (See Appendix C for a full list of people who provided input to the Committee.) Additional perspectives were gathered via written input and an open comment option on the Committee’s webpage. Those who provided input included representatives of several federal agencies, including NOAA, FHWA, NSF, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA);1 local emergency managers and state DOT officials; a wide variety of SBS and meteorology researchers; broadcast meteorologists; and representatives of several weather-related companies.
The Committee hopes this study will provide valuable guidance for an array of governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders across the weather enterprise, and for numerous SBS research communities that are seeking to direct their attention more systematically toward research and applications in meteorology.
The structure of the rest of this report is as follows:
- Chapter 2 discusses how SBS research helps address the mission of saving lives and other important challenges facing the weather enterprise today, especially in the context of rapidly changing forecast and communication technologies. The chapter discusses the potential benefits of collaboration for both SBS and meteorology and discusses the challenges of quantifying value and defining success stemming from new SBS insights.
- Chapter 3 provides an overview of the wide array of activities that have been undertaken in recent years, or are currently undertaken, to help advance the presence of SBS research within the weather enterprise. It also includes discussion of some key challenges that have thus far impeded greater progress.
1 Although the U.S. military branches are in many respects an important part of the nation’s weather enterprise, they represent a unique context for SBS research and were not encompassed within the explorations and recommendations of this study.
- Chapter 4 offers a more specific focus on how SBS research can help address road weather concerns, motivated in part by the fact that vehicle accidents are the dominant cause of weather-related deaths in the United States.
- Chapter 5 elucidates the breadth of SBS research methodologies and models that can be used to study weather-related questions, identifies knowledge gaps, and offers an illustrative agenda of compelling research questions to address those gaps in the coming years.
- Chapter 6 discusses the overall framework for more effectively supporting and applying SBS research across the weather enterprise, discussing the complementary roles and possible steps forward that can be pursued by NOAA and other partner agencies, private-sector weather companies, and the academic community.
- Chapter 7 summarizes the Committee’s key findings and recommendations.