The Story of Bureaucracy at NOAA

Recently, it came out that the House Appropriations Committee’s continuing resolution for the rest of FY 2011 included a 30% cut in the operational budget of the National Weather Service. Naturally, as a fiscal conservative with a huge stake in the continued advancement of meteorological science in this nation, I was conflicted. 30% cuts to the NWS budget seem EXTREMELY harsh…a lot of proposed advancements in the field of weather forecasting would have to be tabled to make that cut work…forget the server upgrade that will allow us to run more ensemble forecasts (that’s where you take one set of initial conditions, make small tweaks to them, and run the same model many times to get a sense for the range of possible outcomes), cancel the Pacific Observing Program (we send extra ships and planes out there to get some real data where no land based data can exist), and so forth. NWS shifts are generally understaffed as it is and forecasters have to spend long hours doing the job a PR guy should do (answering the phone and dealing with reporters) rather than actually making a forecast…and this cut would probably exascerbate that problem even more by ending the SCEP program, STEP program, and other ways the NWS can acquire cheap labor from rising students so that the forecaster can focus on his job. This affects all of us in the atmospheric science community very deeply.

But, after doing a great deal of thinking about this matter last night and this morning, I’ve decided that the intrinsic problem with NOAA as an organization is not that it’s not getting enough funding. The problem is redundancy. A common issue with government bureaucracies. There’s actually a rather colorful and lengthy history behind the development of NOAA as it stands today, but I want to focus on the meteorological aspect and not on th ocean side, about which I know much less.

Demand for weather forecasts to the public began around the time of the civil war (notice how often mkilitary conflict drives our desire to have more scientific knowledge?) and with the invention of the telegraph wire, the National Weather Bureau was born. Back then, all we really thought we could do was observe the weather over a large area, draw some crude weather maps, and then warn the public of the kind of weather that was likely to be heading their way in the next day or so. Forecasters relied on a complex series of thumb rules and their own experience and intuition as to what affects on the public the weather might have. Even then, the bureau was beseiged by corruption, power abuses and it hemorrhaged money far more than it should have, but that is, perhaps, beside the point since we do a better job these days keeping the science level-headed…that is unless you start talking about CLIMATE science…but that’s another fight for another day.

As we hit WWI, and the roaring 20s, the idea that we might be able to use the basic state equations that govern atmospheric motions to make longer term forecasts than 1 day tok hold and the public started asking for three-day forecasts. The National Weather Bureau underwent radical restructuring with the advent of national radio communications and widespread telephone and telegraph availability, but it was still a single government agency doig essentially one task.

When we hit WWII and were forced to fight large battles in the air, away at sea, over land with complex terrain, etc, and with the sudden realization that – hey – the radar we use to spot enemy bombers also happens to return a lot of signal when it hits a thunderstorm! – we began to understand that remote sensing was going to be critical and that we needed forecasts for marine conditions, data on what was happening in the upper atmosphere and a more sophisticated way of disseminating information to the public. Now we had to contend with airports and commercial air travel and myriad other industries (especially energy) which were very weather-dependent.

The Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service at the dawning of NOAA and, shortly thereafter, as demand for forecasts on all kinds of weather-related phenomena grew – driven by the needs of the private sector, primarily – the proliferation into many different essentially-independent offices with their own unique mandates began.

To the NWS were added a HOST of other brnaches including (and this is just a partial listing relevant to atmospheric sience)

– The National Climate Data Center (NCDC)
– The 14 regional River Forecast Centers (e.g. the Mid Atlantic River Forecast Center or MARFC)
– The Coastal Meteorology Research Program (COMRP)
– The National Buoy Data Center (NBDC)
– The National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS)
– The Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC)
– Formerly the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), now the Storm Prediction Center (SPC)
– The National Hurricane Center (now often referred to as the Tropical Prediction Center – TPC)
– The National Centers for Environmental Prediction (these are the guys that run the computer models – NCEP)
– The Climate Prediction Center (CPC)
– The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
– The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
– The University Cooperative Atmospheric Research (UCAR) foundation
– The Cooperative Meteoroology Program (COMET)

There probably several others I’m forgetting…here’s the thing…if a few of those sound redundant to you, you’ve no idea how right you are. For example, here is a list of the offices who are responsible for making a national map including medium range forecasts for possible weather threats: the NWS, HPC, CPC, NCEP, SPC and MARFCs. All of them do this. Every one of those offices make medium range (3-7 day) forecasts. Many of those forecasts are different form each other, though they try to coordinate with each other enough to avoid confusing the public.

How about this for a listing – the offices that maintain some kind of historical weather data: NCDC, NCAR, UCAR, NSIDC, NASA GISS (yep…NASA is in here for some unknown reason) and NWS…all maintain some data…some of which overlaps, though each office theoretically has a distinct mandate.

Want information about sea-ruface temperatures? You can get it from NASA (a totally separate agency!), the NDBC, NCEP, TPC, or HPC.

Not enough to convince you of the massive redundancies at NOAA? How about a listing of the various offices that put out storm surge and wave forecasts:

SCRIPPS (completely unrelated to the Atmosphere side, but a research institution under NOAA), each NWS regional office affected by ocean processes, the river forecast centers, TPC and NCEP (WAVEWATCH model), not to mention the various coastal meteorology initiatives.

Want the two-day forecast? The HPC has a medium range discussion, but they also do short-range threat assessments to back up the NWS’s point-and-click gridded products and regional forecast discussions and if there’s a flood or drought problem, the HPC and the river forecast centers get involved as well.

How the heck did it get like this?? Why does NOAA waste so many man hours, so much money and so many resources doing the same task five times over? The answer would appear to be…a lack of field vision (an understandable problem…we had no way of knowing how much we were about to accomplish with weather prediction at the end of WWII). Each office was developed separately witha mandate that made sense at the time. Each office pursued that mandate independently with very little coordination at the highest levels (as typically happens in government-run research and business), and each office expanded to fill needs of specific customers who didn’t always know about products provided by other offices.

Now, we have a goliath-like enemy…a massive, unkillable multi-headed medusa that eats money like candy. If we cut the entire NOAA operating budget by 30% (let alone the NWS budget)…there would still be PLENTY of room to do all the work we want to do if we would just force offices to SPECIALIZE and COORDINATE. The result would be better forecasts (because each office gets better at the one thing they do), deleivered in a coherent way that everyone would easily be able to navigate (more user friendly if all the information is on one huge server/website with easy navigation than if you have to google search for the specific thing you want at any given time) and less overhead.

The GOP may be going about it wrongly – simply cutting the NWS budget 30% isn’t going to cause them to streamline their business. That may be what we WANT them to do, but they have no experience doing it…they’re run like all government programs…filled with excessive bureaucractic redundancies to make things easier on the planners and budgetary committees (if they have to approve the whole top-down budget in one slug, it gets complicated…if they just hear an idea pitched by one office the decision is easier to make). Cutting the NWS bbudget now…will indeed severely damage the quality of the products they produce. But I still respect the GOP for trying to shine a light on how wasteful the NWS (and NOAA) really is. If we want better science…we have GOT to do that science in a cost-effective way…and we have GOT to specialize.

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