Friday, March 29, 2013

NOAA Hiring Freezes, Travel Restrictions: Not Alarmist Just Reality-Our Weather Forecast Can Get Worse and Jeopardize US Public

This week NOAA, also the parent agency for the National Weather Service (NWS), announced a hiring freeze at a time when its vacancy rate is already around 10%. I understand that this number is near 20% for the Washington DC area NWS Office. At this point, pause and consider public safety. As we enter the severe weather/tornado seasons, the Sequester has forced the hand of our NOAA management and possibly jeopardized the American public's safety, stifled scientific capacity, obliterated morale within NOAA/NWS, and dampened hopes for the next generation of federal meteorological workforce.  Beyond safety, we have increasingly clear evidence that weather is important to our economy (see commentary by me and Nancy Colleton on the "next Commerce Secretary" at Now to be clear, I know, personally, the senior level managers at NOAA/NWS very well.  I know they will do everything within their power to adjust and mitigate impact. This commentary is really not about them. 

It is simply important to understand that NOAA/NWS functions are public services vital to the Nation. Like our dedicated military, border patrol agents, police officers, and firefighters, NOAA employees are providing a service that affects our lives every day, including warnings and alerts. A community would be outraged at cuts to a Fire Station station staff near them, particularly at a time when a rash of arson incidents were happening. I hope you get the point I am making. Additionally, NOAA/NWS personnel are increasingly missing as subject matter experts for major Emergency Management training and conferences.

Further, the vibrant and critical private weather enterprise adds value based on data, models, and warnings that come from the weather service. To elucidate the federal-private relationship, I have often joked that NOAA is to the private sector weather enterprise, what the potato farmer is to a company that makes French Fries. It is a vital partnership, which includes research and applications from academic partners as well. The American Meteorological Society's Washington Forum will bring together the sectors for a vital discussion next week ( Additionally, ongoing discussions about a Weather Commission are increasingly important (

I am fearful of what is happening in our community with draconian sequester cuts, challenges to travel/science meeting attendance (I spoke on this last week in a blog at the AMS Front Page,, and other stresses on science/R&D  support within the National Weather Service/NOAA (journal publications, fees, etc). If you couple this with looming concerns about weather satellite gaps, computing capacity to support advanced modeling, and employee morale, we are slipping down a slippery slope of "eroding" the U.S. federal weather enterprise. However, since industry, academia, and federal agencies work closely together, these effects will ripple throughout the broader community. 

During a recent interview on CNN, today's interview, I discussed the Arctic Oscillation, Blocking Highs, and a high resolution RPM model forecast.  The knowledge and capabilities related to these discussions emerged from years of research, development, collaborative sharing via meetings, and investments. The public may take for granted a tornado warning (probably from a Doppler indicated signature) or satellite loop of an approaching hurricane. Likewise, the public probably just assumes that they will have 5-9 day warning of storms like Sandy; 15-60 minutes lead time for tornadic storms approaching their home; an airline with appropriate data for safe air travel; or a military with reliable information to avoid hazardous weather on a mission protecting our freedom. However, these capabilities "can" and "will" worsen/degrade if we cut weather balloon launches, cut investments in the latest computing technology for our models, reduce Doppler radar maintenance, delay satellite launches, or shatter employee morale. We are accustom to progress, innovation, and advancement and have come to expect it. I am honestly concerned that we will regress in capability and this will jeopardize lives, property, and our security. Anyone that knows me, understands that I am not an "over-the-top," hyperbolic person. I just call things as I see them. And by the way, I have not even spoken about the challenges that a changing climate adds to the weather mix.

 As a Professor of Geography ( and Director of University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program (, I see young, vibrant, and talented students everyday that embody the next generation weather enterprise. They are taking notice of what is happening, and I believe this seriously jeopardizes our future workforce.

As we enter the active spring tornado season, let's hope the sequester season ends, before the hurricane season begins.

End Note: I am aware of the challenges related to travel and emissions. Three points are worth noting:  1. AMS has a Green Meetings initiatives (, 2. Large shifts to videoconferencing are not completely immune as energy is still required to support increased computing/IT requirements for these activities, and 3. Videoconferencing may be highly appropriate for smaller committee and board type meetings but not large scientific meetings, which was the point of my aforementioned blog on the Front Page.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

For science and discovery, Videoconference won't get it

I am sitting here during coffee break at the NASA Precipitation Science Team Meeting in Annapolis, Maryland. This meeting is a gathering of the world's top scientists working with the TRMM, GPM, and other NASA programs related to precipitation, weather, climate, and hydrology. I am also the current President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), a key professional society that, among other things, hosts an array of important scientific and community meetings in the weather and climate fields.

A prevailing lament of many of my federal colleagues attending this meeting is the concern about the ability to attend scientific meetings because of travel restrictions and sequestration/budget issues. As I ponder their laments, I reflect on whether (1) these colleagues are spoiled federal employees not adjusting to austere budgets, (2) these colleagues are victims of a perception about federal employee travel because of a few isolated bad choices (e.g. GSA conference story publicized in the media, or (3) I have a bias as AMS president because we host meetings and have an interest at stake.

Here is 4 things that I come up with:

We risk stifling scientific and technological innovation:  Yes, budgets are tight and some travel/conference activities (a very small percentage) are questionable. However, as someone that has attended scientific meetings and conferences for over 2 decades, these meetings are very intense, intellectually-stimulating, and advance the science. They are not vacations or frivolous. I arrived at the meeting room yesterday at 7:45 am, sat through various sessions, met with 2 different working groups/planning committees, and discussed a potential new scientific collaboration. I got to dinner at 8:15 pm. There is a movement towards the use of various videoconferencing solutions. Those advocating these measures have completely missed the point that the most valued aspects of attending conferences and meetings are the "hallway" meetings, poster sessions, lunch/dinner meetings that lead to potentially transformative research, or the chances to caucus with colleagues on a new method or technology. The presentations (what gets videoconferenced) are important but often secondary or tertiary to the value of such meetings. I am hoping, at some point, to query colleagues about the important science, new proposals, and breakthroughs that emerged from conference attendance.

All professions stay current on their topic, why should scientists and engineers be different?: I cannot imagine any profession or industry not wanting its employees to not be current on the latest methods, techniques, and discussions. I am certain that leading companies continuously train their employees. Scientific meetings are "the training" for many professionals. For example, our AMS annual meeting has up to 20+  "conferences" within one conference. It also has various short-courses, town halls, and briefings. I argue that we risk "dumbing down" our US scientific workforce with such arcane travel restrictions. At a time when, we need to push the innovation envelope for society, we risk folding it up and discarding it. As an example, our Air Force pilots are the best in the world. They develop their skills through course work and flight simulators. However, at some point, they have to get into a real aircraft and interact with other pilots to gain knowledge, experience, and "tricks" of the trade.

Another offshoot of federal travel restrictions is our standing with the international community. US presence is essential at many international meetings. Many of our collaborators and colleagues abroad are also being affected in terms of their own meeting planning, expectations and the possibility of no US presence. Does anyone see the inherent problem with this from the standpoint of international partnerships and our reputation?

What I also find amazing (and admirable) is that many federal colleagues (often called "lazy" or not-dedicated) have paid their own way to meetings or conferences. But if they do this, are they representing themselves? Should they discuss their work at the conference (since technically they are on vacation)?

Stifling the Private Sector:  The private sector and small businesses are critical to our economy. I spoke with several major company representatives and small businesses at our 2013 Austin AMS meeting. They were also lamenting. They were talking about how the lack of federal attendees severely hinders their access to potential new clients and business. This has more than a trickle down affect on the health and vibrancy of our private sector and their contributions to economic vitality.

The Next Generation: As a young meteorology student at Florida State, I was in awe of attending the AMS and other meetings and having the opportunity to meet the woman that wrote my textbook, the Director of the National Hurricane Center, or a NASA satellite scientist. Our current generation of students (undergraduate or graduate) are in jeopardy of losing these valuable career-enriching opportunities. AMS, for example, hosts a Student Conference and an Early Career Professional Conference. By design, we expose hundreds of future scholars, scientists, and leaders to the top professionals in our field. In 2013, many of these professionals can't travel or have to jump through hoops to declare the travel "mission critical" in NASA speak (I spent 12 years as a NASA scientist).

I conclude that I am not being a "homer" on this issue. There are real concerns about the status and future of scientific discovery, innovation, private industry health, international reputation, professional development of our workforce, and exposure of our next generation.

Video conferencing just won't get it.