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News from the National Academies
Date: Jan. 30, 2003
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Officer
Cory Arberg, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

For Immediate Release

National Weather Service Should Continue to
Disseminate Forecasts Despite Private Competition

WASHINGTON -- The National Weather Service should continue to issue general forecasts and provide unrestricted access to observational data, even though weather forecasts are made by many private companies as well, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report also said, however, that the Weather Service should adopt procedures for discontinuing forecasts that are targeted to specific organizations or businesses.

There are now more than 400 private meteorology companies in the United States, and some of them have argued that NWS is competing with the private sector by providing weather products and services -- including forecasts -- that the private sector can provide. In addition, some members of Congress have called on the Weather Service to privatize more services and to avoid competition with the private sector. In response, the agency established a "public-private partnership" policy in 1991 that said NWS would not provide services that the private sector could provide. The policy also states that the Weather Service would continue to collect weather data and issue severe-weather watches and warnings, but that forecasts tailored to particular industries or organizations would be left to private meteorologists, including those in the media. The NWS is still required by law to provide forecasts affecting air and marine travel, however.

The Weather Service and some private companies interpret the 1991 policy differently. The agency believes the guideline reaffirms its mission of creating and disseminating forecasts to the public at large, and has continued to release general weather forecasts. But some private companies took the policy to mean that the Weather Service should never provide information to the general public when the private sector could do so, except for warnings. Meanwhile, interpretation of the policy was further complicated by a new federal rule requiring full and open access to all government data.

NWS should replace its 1991 policy with one that emphasizes processes for making decisions on an ongoing basis about whether a particular type of forecast or other weather product should be created by the Weather Service or the private sector, the committee recommended. It called the current policy ambiguous and said its guidelines were "untenable" because there may be good reasons for the agency to continue to carry out certain activities for the public, even if the private sector could do them. Moreover, any language that suggests NWS should not disseminate information electronically and to as wide an audience as possible is inconsistent with federal regulations requiring full and open access to data. Finally, the policy was written before use of the Internet became widespread, altering the capabilities of both NWS and the private sector, and the way they interact. The new policy should extend beyond NWS to include all parts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- of which NWS is part -- involved in the weather and climate enterprise.

"It is counterproductive to set detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can issue particular forecasts or products," said committee chair John Armstrong, retired vice president of research at IBM, now living in Amherst, Mass. "Instead, efforts should focus on improving the process by which the private and public providers of weather information interact."

The committee noted that for NWS to fulfill its mission of issuing timely weather warnings, it must collect high-quality global data and develop and run atmospheric models, so in most instances the large and expensive infrastructure needed to generate forecasts has already been paid for by taxpayers. These data, models, and forecasts are made available to the public at marginal additional cost, satisfying the government's obligation to make its information widely accessible. The report emphasizes that NWS should continue to pursue activities that are essential to protecting life and property and enhancing the national economy, including issuing forecasts and providing unrestricted access to publicly funded observations. Weather-related damages amount to $20 billion a year in the United States.

NWS should make its observational data, models, and other products available in Internet-accessible digital form, the committee added. The information should be stored in a standard format that can be accessed by the public and used by all those involved in the weather and climate enterprise.

Although the Weather Service has guidelines for determining whether the agency should develop new weather and climate products and services, it has yet to formulate guidelines for determining which products and services to discontinue, the committee said. In developing and implementing these guidelines, NWS headquarters needs to pay particular attention to its 135 local offices, which develop regional forecasts. These offices are given a certain level of autonomy, which fosters innovation but also makes it difficult to enforce official NWS policy. As a result, the products created by the local offices vary, as does their attitude toward cooperation with the private sector. The report says that the regional offices should be managed in a way that balances respect for creativity with greater control over products that may compete with the private sector. For example, a regional office should not provide forecasts designed specifically for a ski resort.

To facilitate communication between the public and private sectors, NWS should set up an independent advisory committee that includes members from government, industry, and academia. And all parties should seek a neutral host, such as the American Meteorological Society, to provide a periodic venue for discussing the relationship between the public, private, and academic sectors.

The study was sponsored by the National Weather Service. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services will be available this spring from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Earth Sciences and Resources
Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate

and

Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Computer Sciences and Telecommunications Board

Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services

John A. Armstrong1 (chair)
Vice President for Science and Technology
IBM Corp. (retired)
Amherst, Mass.

Richard A. Anthes (vice chair)
President
University Corp. for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

William Y. Arms
Professor of Computer Science
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

William E. Easterling
Professor of Geography and Earth System Science, and
Director
Environmental Consortium and Environmental Resources Research Institute
Pennsylvania State University
University Park

Richard S. Greenfield
Senior Policy Fellow
Atmospheric Policy Program
American Meteorological Society
Washington, D.C.

William W. Hoover
Consultant
Williamsburg, Va.

Jessica Litman
Professor of Law
Wayne State University
Detroit

Gordon McBean
Professor
Department of Geography and Department of Political Science
University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario
Canada

Ravi V. Nathan
General Manager
Weather Derivatives Group
Aquila Inc.
Kansas City, Mo.

Maria A. Pirone
Director
Global Data Products & Services
WSI Corp.
Billerica, Mass.

Roy Radner2
Leonard N. Stern Professor of Business
New York University
New York City

Robert T. Ryan
Chief Meteorologist
WRC-TV
Washington, D.C.

Karen R. Sollins
Principal Research Scientist
Laboratory for Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Anne M. Linn
Study Director

Cynthia Patterson
Program Officer


1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences