A Jaundiced Look at NOAA and NWS Management


Chuck Doswell

Last update: 01 April 2005 ... made some minor revisions here and there to bring this essay up to date and added some new links.

As always, this is my personal opinion. Anyone with the courage to comment on this essay can e-mail me at <cdoswell@earthlink.net>

1. Recent events

When I first posted this (late in 1997), a major upheaval had been a hot Internet topic, notably on the weather-related newsgroups. The NWS had announced major cuts in their budget, leading to staff cuts, limitations on travel, discretionary spending, etc. The usual gang of victims! For some reason, this hammer was not falling at the change of the fiscal year (1998) but roughly mid-way through the fiscal year (1997). See below for some opinions about that NWS Strategic Plan of 1999, yet another "crisis" that was descending upon us all.

The terrible bargain made by the NWS ... reduced staffing in exchange for hardware needed for the "Modernization" ... fails to account for the reality that automation has consistently failed to deliver on the promise of reduced staffing. The type of staff needed changes with the introduction of automation, so the mix of knowledge and training needed in an office evolves in step with the level of automation. Staffing reductions are at the heart of everything we're seeing. Faustian bargains within NOAA are everywhere as the budget shrinks, even during a time of unprecedented economic growth. Huge budget surpluses have replaced the deficits (at the end of the Clinton administration), nationally (as of summer 1999), but the budget crisis in NOAA and the NWS remains! How does this happen? The ludicrous policies of the "dubya" administration have re-created huge budget deficits, and pressures for NWS budget cuts are growing.

This essay was originally written as a somewhat jaundiced view of what had been going on ever since I got into the system and why I thought we had reached the crisis of late 1997. Now that I am retired, this essay is also a continuing rant about what is fundamentally wrong with NOAA and NWS management. I also have written specifically about NWS management elsewhere. As things change, I will continue to update this document.


2. NOAA Management

NOAA is the brainchild of Robert White. As head of the Weather Bureau at the time, he combined the Weather Bureau, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory (CRPL) into the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) in 1965. In 1967, the ESSA Research Laboratories (including the National Severe Storms Laboratory) were created from various parts of ESSA. This change also included the name change from Weather Bureau to the National Weather Service.

Not satisfied with ESSA, he then ramrodded through the addition of some more agencies (The National Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Data Center, The National Ocean Survey, and the National Environmental Satellite Service) along with ESSA, resulting in the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ... all as part of the Department of Commerce (DoC). [The old Weather Bureau had been transferred to DoC from the Department of Agriculture in 1940.[1] ] With the creation of NOAA, the ESSA Research Laboratories became the Environmental Research Laboratories [at least the acronym was the same!]. Apparently, NOAA had become a big enough agency lever to vault Bob White out of the Federal Government entirely and into other venues within a few years of its creation.

Since Bob White moved on to bigger things, the high-level NOAA jobs have become politicized ... the agency head is now a political appointee, and the person at the top changes at least as often as political power shifts within the executive branch. The job is a revolving door. NOAA administrators have mostly been lawyers and oceanographers. They're appointed, sit about and wonder "What the heck do these folks I inherited do, anyway?" for a while... then they're gone, to be replaced by another political appointee.

Since the agency head is for all practical purposes a transient, it certainly cannot be said that NOAA has had a steady, powerful advocate of its own programs on Capitol Hill. Say what you will about Bob White ... at least his own self-interest meant that he was going to be a vocal advocate for NOAA programs! Presumably, he had some political clout or he would not have succeeded in his efforts. Since then, we have administrators who are basically NOAA dilettantes speaking on our behalf in DoC meetings. Our NOAA administrator usually is someone on his or her way to some more prestigious political patronage job, or off to some fat cat situation in private industry. Clearly, oceanographers have little grasp of the atmospheric side of NOAA. None of them stay very long, so the revolving door means we have no consistent advocacy in the political arena.

Residing in DoC, NOAA stands out like a sore thumb. Most of the rest of DoC is concerned with Interstate and International Commerce (like ... big business, dude!). NOAA is a major component of DoC, including a big slice of DoC's total budget, so DoC folks are not particularly eager to see it move elsewhere. Of course, the NWS is by far the biggest part of NOAA's budget, with the rest of us (at least on the atmospheric side) hanging on as poor relatives. More on that later. In any case, at the working level, NOAA is composed of scientists and technicians doing technical things that are almost certainly alien to the rest of DoC.

From where I sat in the system, I saw NOAA as basically a bunch of bureaucratic parasites. [2] These people didn't know anything (or care) about me or what I did. They meddle in the business of the various NOAA agencies, constantly asking for "input" when it pleases them (which is more often than is necessary) and then producing nothing tangible (that I could ever see) in return. Like the classic Parkinsonian bureaucratic layer, their main job seems to be to justify their existence, rather than to serve the folks who actually do the business that NOAA is supposed to be doing. When planning is needed, the NOAA staff folks are useless, since they haven't a clue about what the NOAA scientists do, nor can they suspect what really needs doing (unless the political winds are pushing them in some direction unrelated to scientific and technological realities). Outsiders have to be brought in during program reviews, because no one at any high level in the organization has a clue about what's going on, or what should be going on, so NOAA scientists get "judged" by folks that aren't even in their own organization!

NOAA staffers are ineffective at seeking new funds on behalf of NOAA scientists, preferring instead constantly to involve those scientists in fruitless exercises to develop"new initiatives" that go nowhere (owing to political and economic issues), but which waste oodles of the scientists' time in their preparation. I've seen situations where, contrary to expectations, NOAA scientists actually succeeded in getting new initiatives through ... and then their own organization "taxed" the income for their purposes, such that they never got a thin dime of it! Now there's an incentive for work for management! Scientists really can't win in these exercises ... but they can lose if they aren't in there pitching for their programs. It's a constant drain on their time, channeling many staff-hours down the black hole but with little or no gain in return for that investment.

And what deranged bastard thought up the so-called NOAA Support Centers? Here is someone ripe for a Hall of Shame!! A thousand RIFs are not enough for this creep. Rather than letting the agencies run their own Personnel, Purchasing, Travel, and Budget groups, this demented sadist probably got a NOAA cash award for the idea of consolidating them into these so-called Support Centers. These coneheads are not answerable even to the agency heads, but have their own independent chains of command. Their main task, so far as I can tell, is to monitor NOAA scientists' feeble attempts to understand the paperwork. When they don't get it right, the so-called Support Centers just send it back. They do not offer to help the scientists get things right, though ... they just tell them we did it wrong ... again. They are not out to help the scientists do things ... they seem preoccupied with telling them that they can't do things, at least the way they tried to do it. When the scientists keep trying and guess again, the most those scientists can ever expect is that the so-called Support Center staffers will tell the scientists whether or not they guessed right. I will never refer to them without appending "so-called" to "Support Center" since support is something they virtually never offered! When the rules governing the processes run by the so-called Support Centers change, they always change so as to screw the NOAA scientists.[3] A few years back, the so-called Support Center had a budget shortfall ... so naturally, they "taxed" the agencies (out of the agency's budgets) they supposedly serve (hah!) to make up for their shortfall!! Astounding arrogance, about which the agencies are impotent to do anything.

Update added 01 April 2005:

Apparently, abolishing the so-called Support Centers has at least been considered and their responsibilities returned to the agencies from which they were stolen. I don't know that this has actually taken place, but I certainly hope so. They were a bad idea to begin with and if someone in the system finally recognized that and did away with them, I'm applauding from the outside.

NOAA Public Affairs was constantly stepping in if the spotlight of media attention happens to fall on NOAA scientists, pushing themselves in front of the cameras and reporters, but never really offering to help the scientists deal with media attention in any meaningful way. They certainly never did anything that I've seen to promote a positive public image of the science being done in NOAA. They apparently were only interested in the scientists when the cameras are rolling, or something happens (like a major weather event) that forces them to acknowledge the scientists are even around. As a continuing example of this arrogance, NOAA takes credit for, and puts their name directly on, the "NOAA Weather Radio" even though they do nothing to manage and maintain it, jobs that fall on the National Weather Service offices.

I really cannot think of a single good thing that NOAA (or its predecessor, ESSA) ever did for me during my many years of Federal Service (from 1967 through 2001). If there is something there, it was well-hidden. Either they were truly self-effacing, helpful members of my team ... or they were pointless, self-serving, bureaucratic parasites. Care to hazard a guess about which alternative is most likely?

Of course, DoC might be even more egregious than NOAA as a member of my chain of command, but since I am so far removed from them, I can hardly imagine what they have done (or not done). Is DoC in there pitching for us in the cabinet meetings? I doubt it.


3. NWS Management

Some personal perspective: There are two NWSs! One is in the field, doing the valuable and productive work of the organization. The other sits in offices and pumps out paperwork and rules, without doing anything even remotely productive itself. I had to make a decision about which NWS I wanted to work with and know about. Clearly, this decision was a no-brainer, at least for me! See here for more on this subject.

An interesting experience is to browse through the NOAA Locator document, and check out how many "heads" and "chiefs" there are in the NWS inside the Washington Beltway, and in the Regional Offices. I have not done the counting, but surely the fraction of "Chiefs" to "Indians" in the National Weather Service must be pretty high. I certainly do not know what is "typical" in other agencies, and I have no clue what is an average bureaucratic overhead within private industry ... but I find it intriguing how many bosses someone in a National Weather Service office has. In the regions, you have Meteorological Services, Scientific Services, Data Acquisition, etc., etc. All these subdivisions in the Regional Offices can exercise some power over the local office staffs. Then, many of these agencies have direct counterparts in the National Headquarters.

With all these bosses, the system is bogged down with petty bozos who love the "power" they wield. The halls of NWS Headquarters reek with the stench of people enjoying the trouble they can create for local staffs with a simple phone call.

At the intermediate levels, there are scads of ex-forecasters. These folks seem to have extremely short memories of what it was like in the field ... many of them were pretty much out of their league as forecasters and most of them were pretty eager to get out of shiftwork. Exceptions to the rules exist, but the road to perdition is paved with good intentions. When you hear the phrase "When I was in the field, I couldn't see the big picture!" from an ex-forecaster kicked upstairs, then you know the sell-out is well underway. Most of the trouble the intermediates produce is small potatoes, although the accumulated effect of this crap gets pretty tiresome. Naturally, some of these ex-forecasters gravitate to local office management ... and, to be fair, a few of them are even good at it! A tiny minority, a precious few, function in the role of holding back the shit rolling downhill onto the productive field staff.

The real problem I see is at the top Regional and National Headquarters levels. Few of the high-level folks in the bureaucracy have come up through the forecaster ranks. The few that have did so many years ago, when the system in which forecasters operated was very different. These bureaucrats create rules and change procedures at the drop of a memo, but they do not have to experience the disruption and chaos their changes have wrought in the field. They often do not understand the field in any way, shape, or fashion, or if they did, it concerns field operations so long ago that their experience is only marginally relevant. Perhaps they have a vision of what they might want the NWS of the future to be, but it's a vision without input from the field ... the very people who have to live with (and turn into something workable, somehow) whatever NWS management decides. In order to get such positions, the candidate has to have been a "team player" or come in from the outside ... no "boat rockers" allowed to stay in these slots, if they ever get in. You just don't get to high positions if you ask snotty questions and make bold statements about what it takes to put real service into the NWS. These guys often are "careerists" whose original motivations might even have been honorable (if self-deluding). With time, the key phrase to listen for from these folks is "My boss is out of touch with reality!" When a bureaucrat makes such statements, this is sure sign that they are out of touch with reality (as seen at the working level, anyway ... reality is always a relative term!).

The NWS has a history of being such small potatoes that its budget concerns were not of much political interest. As an unexpected consequence of the drive to "Modernization" through the acquisition of fairly expensive technology,[4] political attention has been drawn to the NWS budget. It finally got big enough to attract some attention from the politicians. In order to get Congressional approval to carry out the so-called Modernization, it is clear that a bargain has been struck. In exchange for the technology, positions will be sacrificed and offices closed. This is the dreaded Reduction-In-Force (RIF) that is turning out to be an inevitable consequence of the bargain. Curiously, as the Congressional budget-cutting axe fell, the NWS bureaucracy in 1997 was piously claiming that it had gone too far ... lives were being threatened, etc. Yet the very policies that the NWS has been pursuing for the past 30 years have made these reductions as inevitable as death and taxes. What seems to be going on has been a game of "chicken" ... when the budget is threatened, the game is to propose cuts in visible, life-threatening programs, and in closing local offices. As the hue and cry over these proposals rises, political pressure is put onto Congress to save these precious items, to keep those offices open. In its usual self-serving way, Congress then restores those items to the budget for another year (perhaps after a period of cynical political posturing ... in 1996, this resulted in the shutdown of the Federal government). The process began again with 1998's budget crisis. Once that hurdle was past, new crises emerged. What a surprise!

The very success of this annual scenario has, in the past, encouraged NWS management to continue to play this dangerous game. Obviously, when playing "chicken," you hope that your opponent blinks first. How long will it be before the politicians call the NWS management bluff? What happens when they don't blink first? It seems clear to me that the politicians have figured out the NWS "strategy" and the time to "pay the piper" by actually closing offices and giving up staffing positions has arrived.

Some thoughts added: 02 August 1998

On the current NWS "Strategic Plan"

The "strategic plan" is, so far as I can tell, a neat way to deflect any responsibility for decision-making away from NWS management at the highest levels. If NWS folks weren't required to take it seriously, it would be laughable.

A. "Changing the culture" in an organization that has a long history of "top-down" management requires that the decision to change and the support for that decision must come from the top! If there is little encouragement for decision-making at the lower levels (and the authority to make those decisions happen), then this is just so much empty phrase-mongering. Current NWS management has created a "climate of fear" in the NWS that is the worst it's ever been!! This isn't an environment that leads to a feeling of "empowerment" at the working levels ... quite the contrary! An insistence on "chain of command" procedures with respect to new ideas is a clear indication of the absurdity of this notion of empowerment (and its military origins!). Yeah, right. Run everything through the Regional Directors. That's been such a successful strategy for innovation in the past! The plan's presentation on this issue is cynical at worst and naive at best. I find it so silly as to be almost beneath consideration ... except it's being pushed so hard. If you want low-level folks empowered, the decision has to be made at the top and then forced on the middle managers (who in this culture, have a long tradition of standing aside to let the s**t roll downhill). It's not so easy to change cultures when the attitudes behind those cultures have roots that go back two or three generations, at least.

B. Management's inability to make decisions about changing the allocation of resources toward training and research is another case of load-shedding that is good for them and lousy for the organization. If they really want to improve forecasting quality, there are two avenues: research and training. Research addresses forecast problems for which solutions do not currently exist. Training addresses forecast problems for which solutions exist but are not being applied, or are not applied consistently. Both research and training are needed if forecast quality is to improve. But if no one can reallocate enough resources to make these things happen in a substantive way, no amount of posturing at low levels in the organization is going to make a significant difference. Even if individuals do great research and/or training on their own time, with no new NWS resources (perhaps because they're creative enough to tap other resources), this does not yield systemic improvements. At best, we create little islands of modest quality increases within a sea of declining quality. That's not how to get real improvement done. If hard decisions to allocate meaningful resources into research and training are going to be made, it will be because NWS management at the highest levels makes them! Until there is a tough, entry-level training program, none of this will amount to a hill of beans (with apologies to"Casablanca"). See my training rant for more information on this topic, in general.

If real forecasting problems are to be solved, it's not enough for the NWS to lean on ERL to solve the problems of the NWS ... they should support what they want with real resources! If they pay for something, then they can call the shots on what is to be done. Seems like a reasonable bargain to this scientist! Further, they should consider rewarding researchers who make useful and important contributions to operational forecasting, and quit griping about the ivory tower scientists. If they want answers to serious problems, put some resources into studying those problems in the hands of those with track records of delivering operational results. If the guys at the top of the NWS can't allocate resources to do something serious about training and research, and are telling the lowest-level staff that it's up to them to figure out how to do such things ... well, I don't think you need a crystal ball to see what's actually going to happen.

C. The NWS has a long history of ineffectual advocacy on its own behalf ... NWS management is right on the mark, here, in recognizing that the NWS has done a bad job of selling itself. So what is their answer via the "plan"? Assume that nothing is going to change! Do nothing at the highest level to change it! If you've got problems, fix them yourself with whatever you now have! Now there's a real inspirational program!!

The NWS desperately needs to find management that can function effectively as managers, not bureaucrats. Of course, if NOAA is calling the shots, guess what I think will happen: NWS will continue to be ineffectual, as I've been suggesting above. The NWS is never going to amount to much with this high-level incompetence permeating its chain of command. Not only are the current high-level managers incompetent, but there are damned few competent ones in the pool of those who might replace the current crop! How can anyone be optimistic? Damn it, the NWS has a lot going for it, including a fair amount of public support, but those at the top have shown only that they can lose with what amounts to a pretty decent hand that they inherited. The Faustian bargain that cutting bodies was the only way to get political support for the funding to buy the modernization hardware was a piss-poor bargain. We need creative, inspired leadership that can overcome the mistakes of the past and lead the NWS into a more promising future. What do we get? Incompetents who have no clue about what field forecasters do and wouldn't know what they need even if somehow they could be persuaded to support the field.

NWS management is uniformly of the belief that the staff works for them. They just don't get it! Until they understand that management doesn't create a single product of value to our society, and that their sole reason for existence is to help forecasters do their job (and to do it better if possible), the situation is only going to continue down a long, painful slide to oblivion. Until current managers (or their successor) come around to forecasters and start to inquire what they as managers can do to help forecasters do a better job, nothing is ever going to work the way it should! Management's attitude ... that it's up to the forecasters to figure out how to do more with less ... is a formula for continuing degradation of product quality. Those managers will not be the ones to suffer because of their lack of vision and ability. By the time the whole tragedy plays itself out, they'll be long gone. It'll be the forecasters and, ultimately, the forecast users who'll suffer because of this inability to produce a meaningful strategy.


More thoughts, added 16 August 1999

By the way .... I've heard that some rodent-like character from another weather-related ERL laboratory has sought to curry favor with the brass by calling this essay of mine to their attention. Well, I'm not ashamed of anything in here, and I'm perfectly willing to correct whatever they can show me to be wrong in what I've laid out in this essay ... but of course I never get any feedback directly from these folks. What is pathetic is that this rodent-like person imagines that by trying to make NSSL look bad ("Why can't you control your people?"), the only accomplishment is to reveal the lack of his accomplishments. Trying to improve one's position by trying to make others look bad is the tactic of a loser and anyone with half a brain knows that. Hmmm .... I wonder if the brass can figure that out?

At the moment, I have compelling evidence that my outspoken views have cost me a promotion. In the long run, I don't really care very much about that, but it speaks volumes to me about the system in which I find myself ... if the managers are so negative about my outspokenness that they are willing to try to punish me for it, they apparently are continuing to delude themselves that I'm all wet and they're really doing a superb job. I don't expect them to like what I'm saying about them, but perhaps they could consider that if there is even a germ of truth in what I'm saying, perhaps they should quit defending themselves (by attacking me) and review carefully what they've been saying and doing. If they want me to see their words and actions as they do, perhaps they should consider that from where I sit, those words and actions don't look very good! Is it logical to assume that all of the distortion in viewpoint is one-sided? Why else would I be saying these things? A personal vendetta against them? That's silly! Why should I care about them? All I want is for management to do its job of supporting the productive work of our organizations. Of course, I've found out by experimentation that these guys usually don't see things the same way I do. They probably think they are supporting the organization. What a surprise! And aren't the emperor's new clothes just too chic?


I'd like to mention the silly slogan about a "No Surprise Weather Service" ... far be if from me to suggest that setting high goals is a bad thing. But this slogan is so clearly absurd, it's astonishing that anyone could give it any credence at all. This slogan has to be the brainchild of someone seriously out of touch with the realities of weather forecasting! The August 1999 Salt Lake City tornado is but the first compelling example of what is inevitably to come ... the slogan will be trotted out by the press at every unforecast major event, of which there are bound to be many examples in the future. Even the best forecasters, working under the best of conditions (not the current NWS conditions, certainly!) will miss some ... a few misses due to a lack of substantive training, a few misses due to a lack of physical understanding (that might have been addressed by research).

Thus, it becomes a P.R. nightmare ... imagine Mike Wallace sticking an ambush camera in someone's face and asking "Didn't you guys promise 'No Surprises'?" It reminds me of the hubris of military commanders ... I remember a slogan "Zero Defects" that was popular when I was in the military. It's very easy for a commander to make up such a slogan, but it's up to the staff to live up to it, realistic or not! It's also common for those commanders to be surrounded by "Can Do, SIR!" sycophants who have neither the ability nor the real belief that they can accomplish what has been ordered. But the system rewards them for a crisp salute and their "can-do attitude." In my opinion it breeds cooked-up numbers and various forms of hand-waving rationalization, in precisely the same way that the old Communist 5-year plans rewarded the fakers in middle management and punished the sincere working-level stiffs. This "No Surprise" slogan does contain one element of truth, though. It will be "no surprise" to me when "surprises" happen!

The NWS has a substantial number of intelligent, creative folks at the working level. But their managers have little or no history of providing for them and their needs, so much of the potential innovation and creativity dies at birth for lack of even a modest amount of encouragement (and resources!). If people are forced to come up with "positive numbers for the sake of positive numbers" (And don't worry about the meaning of those numbers!), then you should expect an erosion of scientific integrity within the organization, just to please the boss. It's already happening, and if the "Strategic Plan" is going to be pushed, then look for more ... lots more.

For instance, I'm pretty confident that in the arena of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, it's going to be damned difficult to reduce the false alarms (system-wide) while at the same time maintaining or even increasing the probability of detection (system-wide). The combination of the state of our science and the state of training out there in the field guarantees this. There are two tracks we can follow:

(1) provide resources for real training and research, or

(2) watch the managers "cook" the numbers.

Number manipulation is happening now and it will get worse, if this drive to "improve the numbers" is pushed without providing any sense of just how this apparent miracle can be done in today's reality of pitiful training and minimal relevant research support. No one in management is willing to see to it that (1) is the avenue of choice, so (2) seems inevitable!


More thoughts added 01 April 2005

Once again, talk of major staffing cuts in the NWS has surfaced, this time including a "consolidation" program superficially resembling that proposed by Harold Brooks, Mike Fritsch, and I in a conference paper. Of course, the substance of this proposed consolidation plan will likely not resemble very closely what we recommended in that paper. That paper has apparently created some controversy, in part because some forecasters feel that it is being used as an excuse for the proposed consolidation. That might be true, but the irony of that is astounding - see here for a discussion of that issue.

Of more importance, in my opinion, than the current threat of this "consolidation" is the very existence of humans in the public weather forecasting system in the future. At this point, it's hard to be optimistic about the future for public sector human weather forecasters. I think the handwriting is plainly on the walls for all to see, if you get past the propaganda smokescreens put out by NOAA and NWS management - what they're doing speaks so loudly, I can't hear what they're saying. And if the NWS comes to be dominated by technological forecasting and humans have little or no substantive role as forecasters, then the NOAA weather-related research program will have to become entirely devoted to research aimed at technological solutions for forecasting problems. The sort of research that I did for NOAA will have become obsolete.

4. Weather research

As a scientist whose entire NOAA career was devoted to weather-related research, it can be expected that I wanted to see my own interests advanced. Please forgive me my own self-interest ... if that was a sin, then let anyone among my readers whose career has been devoted only to self-destruction cast the first stone!

At the time this was first posted, we in the weather-related research community stood at a crossroads. The NWS (and its predecessor, the Weather Bureau) has always been the main vehicle for implementation of NOAA weather-related research ideas. Hits to the NWS inevitably come around to hit the research side of NOAA. Do I really want the NWS to take budget cuts? Not at all! Despite their miserable management, most of the forecasters I know have a remarkable devotion to their jobs. Many of them are true "weather weenies" who love forecasting and want to be able to do the best job possible. My research has always been aimed at these NWS guys ... they certainly don't get much respect or support from within their own organization!!

Weather-related research has mostly come under the aegis of the so-called U.S. Weather Research Program (USWRP). The USWRP is a Phoenix that arose from the ashes of the so-called STORM program of the early-to-mid-1980s. The STORM program was the brainchild of some university and NCAR types who figured it was a vehicle to provide extra funding for their own projects. As a pretty naive scientist, I was tempted initially to throw my support into the STORM program ... until I saw the nonsense they were trying to create. At a time of increasing budget pressures (a seemingly endless reality during my career), they wanted a multi-million dollar "fishing expedition" ... go out and take a bunch of observations and hope that something good would come of it. I quickly lost interest in this and figured its chances for funding were pretty slim. I was right, but some of the key players in STORM ended up running the USWRP. They were joined by some new players whose operational forecasting experience was also zero.

The USWRP is merely a continuation of STORM, under a new name, with perhaps a few lessons learned but no new vision and certainly no new infusion of operationally-oriented input. Rather than seeking input from those of us whose entire NOAA careers have been devoted to weather-related research, the USWRP has sought advice mostly from bureaucrats and university professors. It has been their vision of what is important to do that has created the main thrusts of the USWRP. Given the characters who molded the vision of the USWRP, it is not surprising to see that the program's priorities reflect the research interests of a few influential participants, mainly from NCAR and the universities. The NCAR and university scientists get a chunk of money to scramble over in the name of supporting NWS operations ... some of that money was plundered from NOAA programs. NOAA got a scrap or two thrown their way, but the big guns in the USWRP were and still are the NCAR and university players ... folks who until recently saw no value in "applications" and had little or no history of meaningful operational involvement.

Thoughts added 01 April 2005

There is a movement afoot within some segments of the weather research community to bypass the incompetent USWRP and create an effective partnership among weather researchers, operational forecasters, and the users of forecasts. This is still in the planning stage, but I have to say that anything that might evolve out of this movement is likely to be an improvement over the USWRP. See:

Mass, C.F., et al., 2003: Regional environmental prediction over the Pacific Northwest. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 84, 1353-1366.

for a regional example of how this partnership could evolve on a national level.

I've had the dubious "privilege" of being involved in the USWRP proposal review process and I believe I can say without much fear of contradiction that internal politics has been the primary deciding factor in whose research gets funded. Although scientific review panels can come to pretty clear consensus about which proposals are really good and which are really poor, their input is only a small aspect of the actual decision-making. This has been a huge disappointment to me ... in spite of being over 50, I continue to cling to the naive belief that scientific funding decisions should be driven by the scientific merit of the proposals rather than political pressures within the various organizations. As I wrote this in 1997, the "ERL" scraps were being reviewed. No program with which I had any affiliation was supported, even though we had excellent scientific content reviews!

The NOAA research bureaucracy is largely clueless about what its own scientists do, why they do it, and how they do it. Within NOAA, there is the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR ... headquarters in Silver Spring, MD) bureaucracy runs a number of laboratories, many of which are in Boulder proper. The bureaucratic structure, however, makes this Boulder location of little real value to them. The far-flung OAR labs are generally far removed from the "power" residing inside the Washington, D.C. beltway. Their inability to obtain sufficient base funding is clearly related to this lack of proximity to the halls of "power".

Note added: 16 August 1999

I'm informed that ERL Headquarters now resides in the Washington, D.C. area ...probably near NOAA Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD. I stand corrected.

Note added: 09 February 2003

ERL no longer exists. I do not mourn its passing! Did someone actually see the light?

Note added: 01 April 2005

Rumors now exist that something like ERL might rise from its own ashes, again. I certainly hope that won't happen, but in the fantasyland of NOAA bureaucracy, anything is possible, particularly if it's bureacratic and pointless!

Whereas NWS management tends to meddle in NWS operations right on down to the local levels (the current buzzword is "micro-management"), OAR researchers have generally had the benefit of "benign neglect" ... OAR mostly doesn't know or care much about who they are or what they do ... unless they create problems for the bureaucrats by being too outspoken [!] or get an award for something. To this extent, I prefer OAR management to NWS management, having served under both.

But OAR management is equally inept as NWS management at getting support for the things that the NOAA scientists do. They mostly are ineffective at supporting our programs, perhaps in large measure because they are not interested. Like the rest of NOAA management, they tend to be transients, sitting for awhile and then moving on. They're too busy being important to know much about the very people and research they're supposed to be trying to support. They certainly were never found pounding away at my door asking to be involved in what I was doing ... as noted, this can be a blessing, but it can be a curse,too. If they didn't engage in troublesome meddling, neither did they ask us what they could do to do to help us do our jobs more effectively. There were some occasional exceptions to this ... I appreciate the few times when that happened, believe me! ... but there never seemed to be much consistent interest.

Learning what goes on in research is not a matter of sitting through "dog and pony shows" in the stupid program reviews that have been forced on NOAA scientists, either. To know what those scientists actually do, someone in authority must (a) have some minimal knowledge of science, and (b) spend time with the working-level scientists individually or in small groups. This almost never happens. The beat goes on.

Like the NOAA bureaucrats, OAR managers like to ask their scientists to help them create "input" for "5-year plans" and other meaningless planning games (or fruitless "new initiative" efforts ... see above). These are pointless exercises ... science doesn't work on 5-year plans like the steel industry or the Communist Party.[5] Scientists don't know what they will be doing in 5 years because the growth of scientific ideas is highly nonlinear. We don't plan scientific breakthroughs in advance, and we can't predict where the most productive avenues will be in 6 months, much less 5 years!

A new focus (in February of 2003) on "deliverables" and "timetables" is equally badly matched to the way science gets done. If science were truly like going to the Moon, or building an atomic bomb ... then perhaps this sort of militaristic crap would make sense. But science doesn't work that way and it's only a measure of the incompetence of that management that would lead them to expect such things.

I think the Atmosphere side of OAR has been particularly inept at advocating scientific programs, in comparison to the Oceanic side. Everyone loves dolphins and worries about the future of our oceans ... justifiably so, in my opinion ... but atmospheric research presently seems to be focused on global change issues, to the exclusion of a lot of very important things. NOAA's atmospheric scientists need better advocacy than what they have been getting.

Government research used to fill a special niche, where we could go and carry out extended programs because we were not slaved to the 3-year NSF proposal cycle and "publish or perish" did not have the same force in Federal service it has elsewhere. What we in Federal research have been good at is the modest programs that require a lot of time to carry out. Sometimes those programs don't work out, but sometimes they have had big payoffs for the science. We often do not have the latest technology because our budgets don't permit us to stay with the technological wave, so we aren't very good at the flashy stuff. It appears now that this whole niche for Federal research is being swept away ... we are being dragged into short-term, proposal-based projects with "deliverables" and timetables, that effectively put us in competition with university and NCAR researchers. This is a competition many of us don't want, and which probably has a long-term outcome involving gutting the Federal research labs. Budget pressures are putting us in the position that we can't fill in behind departing Federal employees. Many NOAA laboratory employees now are in soft-money positions, vulnerable to termination on short notice as inflation has decreased the OAR lab base funding to a slim remnant of what it used to be. Our Federal workforce is aging and little new blood is entering the Federal side.

This process is a tragic mistake ... not just for me and the rest of us Federal "fat cats"[6] ... but especially for the citizens who will not get the benefits of what we in weather-related Federal research can offer.


5. So why we are here?

So here we sit, still enduring what seemed to me to be an endless budget crisis during my entire Federal career and even beyond. Were it not for the occasional enlightened middle manager, who has just enough discretionary power to help small programs go forward, it seems to me that whatever science got done on behalf of NOAA's operational agencies was almost purely coincidental. NOAA's scientific programs get little or no attention unless they are perceived by the politicians to be in a state of crisis, where votes can be bought by ham-handed decisions, including throwing money at our national problems or axing useful programs for short-term budget gains. It's of some interest to note that for a long time, funding for various severe storms programs usually got a boost whenever a big weather-related disaster happened. This was a classic reflection of the politically-motivated need to seem to be doing something.

Of late, however, the big disasters (like Hurricane Andrew or the tornado outbreak of 3 May 1999) have come and gone, but with no associated positive increments in funding for research and operational implementation of new programs. It seems our bureaucrats have become so ineffectual that they can no longer convince politicians of the importance of our programs, even when the need for such programs is made apparent by events. Can it be that the politicians have grown tired of empty promises that always seem to dissolve into cost overruns, endless delays, and clear mismanagement? Even with my jaundiced view of the political process, it could be that the politicians have grown tired of the NOAA and NWS bureaucratic maneuvering.

From where I sit, I can foresee some pretty bad things coming up for the NWS and, in turn, the NOAA weather-related research labs. The budget cuts, staffing shortfalls, and degradation of services will produce some potentially long-lasting gaps in the infrastructure that will be hard to fill someday in the future, if it is decided that the program cuts induced by the budget-slashing were a mistake. The expertise may have dissipated and it may be difficult, if not impossible, to re-create. It's not unlike the complacency that develops between disasters within particular communities that leads to the reduction and elimination of preparedness efforts for dealing with those disasters.[7] When a disaster happens again (as it inevitably does), the communities are often unprepared and people are hurt in various ways unnecessarily ... followed by a hunt for scapegoats. Preparedness then is re-started, but the drive to complete and maintain it once again falls into decay when the disaster doesn't happen again right away. If we blow away the human side of the NWS (and associated infrastructure, including those parts of the Federal weather-related research labs devoted to serving the needs of human weather forecasters) in a frenzy of misguided cost-cutting, how easy will it be to re-create it? That depends, of course, on how long it takes to realize the mistake (if it, indeed, turns out to have been a mistake).

Sadly, at the moment, we have no clear picture of the value of our warning and forecast services. Value is associated with the sensitivity of users to weather information, and we have done little or nothing to quantify the economic value of our forecasting services. When the political guillotine is thirsting for new victims, we are easy prey (see my essay about users). Perhaps this is just a self-serving view, but I sincerely believe that the NWS (in spite of all its faults, largely thanks to the professionalism of forecasters) provides tremendous value to the users of its forecasts. I believe, in turn, that OAR research offers useful information to forecasters. The sad fact that I see is that U.S. citizens will suffer various kinds of losses, including unnecessary fatalities, if the process of the gradual dismemberment of the NWS (and those of us providing research in support of their operations) continues unabated. But at the moment, I can't prove any of these beliefs.

I can see that the lack of proper education and training makes it unlikely that the NWS can take rapid advantage of new science. And of course, the new technology (e.g., the so-called Modernization and Restructuring) that we recently completed spending billions to obtain (and for which we are sacrificing staffing) has little or no accompanying new science. What forecasting improvements are possible from the new observations is an open question, awaiting the research needed to ferret out those improvements. But NWS management still doesn't seem all that interested in supporting that research ... they were too busy trying to finish their "modernization" in 1997 to see that its benefits will not be made real without a commitment to long-term research into the operational potential of the new technologies (observational and computational). They have no notion of what it takes to accomplish meaningful research (easy access to data, scientific support staff, computing, reasonably steady funding support). Without NWS support, the weather-related research side of NOAA has real problems getting anyone's attention. Of course, when NWS budgets are under attack, research is a convenient victim, preferable to slashing operations.

For lack of strong advocacy on Capitol Hill, I can foresee that suffering and dissolution of programs (without being able to provide dates and names, of course) will result from this budget-slashing, and yet can do little or nothing to prevent it. Being able to say "I told you so!" afterward is not any consolation at all! If anything, I hope I am terribly wrong about all of this and that somehow things will manage to work out for the best. But at the moment, I don't feel at all optimistic. Nor do I feel that our management is interested in contrary views being heard.

Of late, I get a rather disturbing message from the bureaucrats: an expression of opinion is something they wish to suppress. "Don't give the politicians ammunition!" they say. "We must present a united front! Everyone must march in step! Be a team player!" We are treated to news conferences where agency heads are clearly being forced to go along with budget cuts they don't support. The politicians and the bureaucrats seem to be joining forces to reduce the dialog to a monologue! Don't say anything negative on the Internet while using a Federally-funded computer.

Stifling dialog is the first step down a slippery slope, folks! Can book-burning be far behind? How can the opinions of NOAA employees about NOAA business be anything but a vital component of their jobs? When politicians and bureaucrats aren't interested in hearing the ideas and opinions of Federal workers, when discussion of issues important to NOAA operations is not only not encouraged but actively discouraged, when dissent and differing opinions are stifled - what sort of conclusion can you draw? And what do you think of the Emperor's new outfit?


6. Alternatives?

Well, if we have all these problems, what are my proposed alternatives? Well, here they are.

a. Take NOAA out of DoC, and have it be an independent agency ... comparable to NASA ... with its administrator reporting directly to the President.

b. Failing (a), de-politicize NOAA, such that its administrator is a Federal official, not a political transient. Hire that official from within the agency somewhere. Make the individual departments of NOAA into a sort of "cabinet" within NOAA, where the agency heads are on an equal footing. And give someone besides lawyers and oceanographers a chance to lead NOAA. How come NOAA was last led by a meteorologist when Bob White created it?

c. Eliminate at least one layer of bureaucrats in every agency within NOAA. Good candidates would be the NWS Regional Offices (all of them!), and ERL. I'm sure there are others within other NOAA agencies. And fire 90 percent of the NOAA lawyers!

d. In the NWS, make every bureaucrat spend one year out of every three in the field offices somewhere, doing shiftwork ... up to and including the head of the agency. Do not replace that bureaucrat during his or her absence from the position. This means a one-third reduction in bureaucratic "production" of memos and such ... this alone would improve field operations! By having to live with whatever rules and regulations they create at least one year out of three, they would be a lot more responsive to input from the field about what works and what doesn't work. Moreover, they would allow full staffing of the field offices, creating a host of new opportunities for real forecasters to do things on their own. Those forecasters are hard-pressed now simply to do their jobs and little more, because of vacancies in the already minimal staffing.

e. Scrap the existing USWRP and use the resources being wasted on pointless proposal reviews and scientifically unproductive bureaucrats to reinvigorate the budgets of the NOAA research laboratories with a history of weather-related research. Quit using NOAA money to dole out favors to universities until the Federal budget permits that sort of largess. Make some hard decisions about what NOAA programs are not pertinent or likely to be productive and shut down those programs in order to free up resources sufficient to accomplish whatever scientific goals are decided upon as being important. Bring those budgets up to the point where those programs have:

i) Enough base funding to support the entire staff and keep the building open,

ii) Sufficient resources that the laboratories can once again have discretionary funds to support soft-money projects (outside of NOAA) that would enhance the accomplishment of their laboratory missions, and

iii) Funds to support observations (data collection), as well as modeling and abstract theoretical research. Data collection, archival, and dissemination is a pitiful weak sister in scientific organizations at a time when we need real data more than ever! The universities and NCAR should not be the sole sources for scientific observations. Fire the staff of NCDC and get some people in there who are interested in service, not their damned careers!

f. Make it mandatory that the head of OAR and the high-level staff visit the NOAA research laboratories at least once every other year. They should spend that time listening to their scientists and finding out what the programs need to complete their missions. This should not be a "dog and pony show" experience, but rather a chance to know and understand what it going on in the organization at something more than a superficial level! Quit paying to bring in outside teams of "experts" to review the laboratories ... if OAR management can't understand what's going on in its own laboratories, find some managers who can understand what's going on!

g. If, in spite of good effort, budget crises continue to plague the organization, have the courage to do something other than across-the-board slashes. Develop priorities and make budget allocations (i.e., hard decisions!) actually fit the priorities.

h. Develop a peer-review performance evaluation for forecasters and researchers, with management not being allowed to sit on the peer-review boards. Have peer-review boards assist management in making decisions about priorities, rather than counting on management to know what needs to be done operationally and scientifically (for which it never has shown much of a knack).

i. Clean out the existing staff of Public Affairs and hire some folks who really know how to sell our programs to the public.

j. Develop a process whereby the scientific agenda of OAR research labs is set by the scientists thmeselves, not the lab directors or other bureaucrats.


Is it realistic to expect these things to happen? Almost certainly not. For instance, I have my doubts that the NWS agency heads would ever be expected to soil their hands with real work every third year. Perhaps something short of that would work, but it couldn't stop too far short of that and still achieve what I believe is important. The idea is for the agency bureaucrats to know truly what impact their decisions have on field staff, and to understand what it takes to do the job they are expecting their staffs to perform. They need to know what things to say and how to back it up with facts and figures when they assume the needed advocacy role on Capitol Hill. If this can be achieved some other way, fine. Anything less is going to be "business as usual" where major decisions affecting the staff are made by folks who have no grasp whatsoever of the reality they are trying to mold, and where agencies decline incessantly for lack of political and bureaucratic "clout."

I certainly was not a disinterested player in the research side of NOAA at the time I first posted this - I can't deny that my self-interest was at stake. However, local management decided that what I was doing was of apparently of little or no value to the organization, so I chose to leave. Do not tell me that what I am doing is important and then leave me without the resources to do my job! I may be stubborn, but I'm not stupid. I'm not deceived by flattery and posturing.

NOAA managers and OAR Lab directors seem to be under the impression that achieving a management position is tantamount to empowering them to impose their personal agenda on the programs of their agencies. They treat this perceived power as a "perk" ... a reward for years of faithful support of the "party line" ... "team play" ... and not "rocking the boat." [otherwise known as ass-kissing!] This is an egregious misunderstanding of the role played by management. Proper management cannot be successful by pushing its own agendas. Rather, it can only measure its success by the extent to which it helps the working-level staff become successful at their goals!

It is hard for me to optimistic about the future. I see many bad things happening in NOAA's NWS and OAR but I seem powerless to stop the process. Nevertheless, I continue to hope that somehow we can change the NOAA management culture away from the militaristic, top-down, hierarchical process it has become. Forecasting and research are not military operations, requiring unquestioning obedience!! If NOAA science is to achieve its maximum value in service to the public, NOAA management needs to change its perception that its people work for them, and to understand that a proper manager works on behalf of the staff. When the opinions of the staff are not given serious consideration and conscientious employees are muzzled for the sake of an illusion of unity behind the manager's vision of the future, the whole venture is at risk