Science first, service always

In the weather enterprise, there are numerous service organizations. The services that these organizations provide vary, but generally involve analyzing, interpreting, and, in many cases, forecasting meteorological and environmental parameters. Service organizations not only exist in the private sector, but in the public sector as well. The National Weather Service and National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service are large service organizations in the federal government. Service is in their name. Service organizations in scientific fields, like meteorology, can struggle to find an internal identity because, when it comes to core service improvement, there is a tension between focusing on development to better services (e.g., physical science research-based enhancements) and improvements to the delivery of those services (i.e., the nature of the communication).

While rarely is a service organization in a science-related enterprise completely devoid of science, budgetary and management priorities toward improving service delivery can set a tone that discourages substantive research progress. Research is the best way to produce incremental change in the accuracy, and arguably quality, of scientific services. The end user experience with a prospective service improvement should not be overshadowed though.

“Research to operations” could be restated as “science to service” in order to emphasize the importance of science in the service organization. In other words, the R2O cycle is not exclusive of the services that an organization provides. How a research byproduct caters to a service deliverable must be considered. After all, the purpose of R2O is for research to meet a tailored need in operations. Operational entities cater to users or customers. In the weather enterprise, the end users are often the public, businesses, and other government agencies that consume information. And these consumers should acutely guide operational activities with their needs.

After many meteorological and environmental disasters, we often hear how it “struck without warning” as if no one knew it was coming. Other than earthquakes, there is almost always some early notification of impending hazards provided via traditional means of communication. And, as most people receive it and take heed, they likely pass that information to people who missed it. Some threats are easy to convey, such as a tornado or volcano. People understand that these are always life threatening. But how about floods and heat waves? Do these types of disasters—that have varying magnitudes, from barely an inconvenience to deadly—result in the public widely taking preventative action?

Unfortunately, recent history tells us that they generally do not. But is the prevailing problem that the means of communication were insufficient, or that the message was not conveyed properly? The breakdown probably occurred because the messaging lacked some combination of pragmatism, credibility, and certainty. These are three items that science can improve substantially and messaging can only improve marginally.

For example, a weather forecast could call for ten inches of rain, with at least six inches highly likely. This may be a credible forecast but very difficult to convert to certain impacts because the impacts are reliant on the scenario. In other words, it might be obvious to anticipate ponding of water in low spots, but what roads will become impassable with that amount of rain? How many homes will be underwater? With the highest geographic precision, the forecast must be certain and the impacts must be certain.

Improving the meteorological prediction and developing specific environmental models to convert observations to impacts is inherently scientific. It is impossible to communicate or base a service on information you do not have, or cannot be stated easily, confidently, and specifically. In this sense, in order to become a strong service organization, an advanced scientific research program is a necessary component. A connection must exist between this program and the rest of the organization. Let an organizationally integrated approach to R2O promote science first in support of services always.