Public Science, Private Profit

As some of the new administration’s scientific plans start to emerge, one can see a pattern.  Proposed changes to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) budget include a 26% ($126M) cut to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric research, elimination of the SeaGrant program, and a 22% cut in the satellite data division, all of which smacks of anger that scientists supported under some of these programs failed to confirm some climate denialists’ claims of global cooling. In addition there appears to be a general sense that NOAA needs to operate more like a business. Even the National Weather Service is to be cut under this plan. (Payback for the rain on Inauguration Day?)

In essence, this is an evaluation that climate research must be scaled back. It is a classic head in the sand move, one profoundly unwise in many areas.  First, an awful lot of that research has nothing to do with anthropogenic climate change, so even if you think that research is inappropriate, you are killing a lot of innocent bystanders as a result.  It includes work on understanding some of the various atmospheric oscillations and how they can affect extreme weather events. It includes work on means of improving long-term weather forecasts and monthly climatic forecasts. It includes observations of how temperatures in the oceans and atmosphere are changing–observations, mind you, not interpretations of why such changes are happening, but necessary observations for all the other forecasting activities going on. Previous NOAA heads from the last two administrations have called these cuts unwise. For a country that regularly suffers billion dollar losses in multiple weather events each year, cutting back on research and observation is profoundly misguided.

While part of this is motivated by a change in priorities by the new administration toward military growth, and part may well reflect unhappiness with scientific observations and inferences by some members of the administration, part of this too reflects a long time Republican feeling that government can be replaced by business. For instance, the GOP wanted to kill off the distribution of topographic maps by the USGS during the Reagan Administration. In fact, they wanted the Survey’s data to be freely available to corporations that would then print off their own maps, free of any competition from the USGS maps. One claim, for instance seen in a 1988 National Review article, was that private companies could make better, cheaper maps than the USGS. It is worth tearing this apart just to illustrate why there are some things the government does well, which actually benefits private interests as well as advancing public ones.

In the article, the author is looking for a road map and finds a USGS topographic map inadequate, but a cheaper roadmap from a gas station was much superior. Let’s start with the mistaken intent of the USGS maps. Topographic maps were surveyed for the shape of landforms: positions and elevations of all points on these maps had specified accuracy (detailed in the National Map Accuracy Standards).  These maps cover the entire country. The fundamental information in these maps did not change as new roads were built; their intent was to be base maps for more specialized applications, like flood mapping, geologic mapping, identifying geological hazards and so on.  Nobody in their right mind ever bought a USGS topo map as a road map for a rapidly growing urban area–but they might have used it as such in a more remote part of the country where no other maps were publicly available.

That is far from the main part, though. There is a charming naiveté in claiming the private sector would make better maps more cheaply.  How do you think that cheap gas station map was made? Did the map company go out and survey all the roads in the area? No. They probably started from city and county highway maps, themselves surveyed in part using the surveyed points from the USGS work. In order to protect copyright, many private mapmakers actually introduce small errors in order to be able to prove another company copied their map. USGS maps have no such watermarking. More recent maps are often simply created from another government source, the U.S. Census’s TIGER data files, which include not only roads but address information. Although lately we have seen private companies like Google and Apple work to collect their own map data, and several smaller firms are similarly engaged in creating better mapping materials, they are all typically starting from the government-provided framework. (Lately the USGS has shifted to using remote data rather than any on-the-ground surveying to more frequently update maps; the results, though, are unhappy for many applications).

How much did they pay for all this information?  If the government was truly run as a business, those TIGER files would be worth millions. Instead, you can download them all on the internet for free (in early days, there was a cost to getting copies of the data, but the cost was basically the cost of making a physical copy and mailing it).  Same thing with the USGS topographic maps: these maps are both cheap (in physical form, free online) and do not have a copyright: anybody can use them for whatever purposes they desire.

What was done for quite awhile with the USGS topographic maps was that the digital access to these maps was greatly limited: the Survey was only allowed to distribute the maps at a very low data rate.  But a private company was allowed to send them at whatever rate they could, and charge extra money for that, despite providing no additional value whatsoever.  And the private company’s link was on the USGS webpage for many years. In essence, you had to pay money to a private company solely for gaining access to maps you had already paid for, a prospect that maybe barely made sense at the start (recall that the backbone of the Internet was also a government creation) and made much less sense as high speed connections were widespread.

Anyways, you get the picture.  The government for various reasons pertinent to running the country assembles data and then shares it freely (this, by the ways, is not the way many other countries treat their government-acquired data). An advantage is that since everybody has access to the data, frequently in a very raw form, problems can be fixed and new uses grafted on to the raw data with confidence.

Consider instead the private model. Something like this comes up frequently in geological work: you might have access to a seismic reflection profile that a company acquired, and the company is OK with you looking at it, but you can’t share the profile or its exact location in any publication. You can however make a line drawing from it and make some geological interpretations. So your publication lacks the basic observations behind your interpretation. Other scientists cannot verify the validity of what was done. There are plenty such publications out there; this is commonly how this is done, but the problems that might have existed in acquiring or processing the original data are hidden and likely lost. In some cases, it can get to the point where to really solve a problem, you have to go and acquire pretty much the same kind of data yourself.

Now imagine this for NOAA. NOAA is shut out of the satellite business, let’s say, and has to contract with private companies. Well, these companies say, you want our data? If you want it all, it will cost this much, but you can’t share it, you can only draw some conclusions from it. Or maybe you have to go for the interpreted data product. You might not have access to calibration information, you might not have other important information about the sensors on the satellite. You make some conclusions: water temperature in front of an oncoming hurricane is low, so the hurricane will break up. But no, there was an issue with the raw data you didn’t see because you couldn’t afford the full package or the company felt it was proprietary or, worse yet, the company knew of the problem but felt it would lose the contract if they shared the info. Hundreds die as the hurricane intensifies and hits a vulnerable coastline. You can play the same game with longer term datasets.

None of this is to say that NOAA is a perfect organization free of buying or running things that could be improved.  Every incoming administration in GG’s lifetime has made claims that they would cut government waste.  Feel free to go in and identify it.  What doesn’t work well is simply to say “you get less money, deal with it”–some organizations may be at the bone, others might have gold-plated toilet seats. Some cuts might actually avoid a politically well-connected program at the expense of one that is well-run (arguably the base closure process over the past 30 years or so illustrated this problem nicely). The cuts suggested for NOAA look a lot more like a politically motivated attempt to avoid truths power doesn’t want to hear than a realistic attempt to streamline an agency.

[Full disclosure: GG is a Fellow of CIRES, a joint institute between NOAA and the University of Colorado, but receives no money from NOAA, though no doubt benefiting in some small ways from the heft of the organization.  Being in the Institute, though, GG has seen a lot of the breadth of science supported in CIRES, a fair bit of which comes from the research programs apparently slated for large cuts.]

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4 responses to “Public Science, Private Profit”

  1. geodoodler says :

    As I read this, I’m impressed by the academic and liberal bias that is common among researchers. This includes suspicion and opposition to industrial work in your area of expertise. I’m sorry, but the bias has switched to pro-business and research will be evaluated based on a cost benefit analysis. I’m sure that you think there are only political reasons for the cutbacks in the budget for many
    science projects and I won’t deny that the it may be some truth in that but I also know that cost-benefit analysis plays a major role as well. Meteorological and climate predictions have been very inaccurate and rank poorly on cost-benefit analysis. That doesn’t mean they should be eliminated but it does mean they should be managed.

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    • cjonescu says :

      Wow, didn’t know I had a person inside the government reading this, as you “also know that cost-benefit analysis plays a major role as well.” While a reasonable assertion, only one participating in developing the budget would know this for sure. I for one don’t KNOW that politics has played role in which programs are currently slated for big cuts, and in fact it is even possible that all the people developing this were told was “cut this much from your budget” as the President wanted to shift funds to the military, and those folks then assumed what was and was not likely to be viewed favorably by higher-ups. But given statements over the past few years by certain members of Congress, I think it unlikely politics played no role here.

      I have no objection to cost-benefit in theory, and I am sure there are places in NOAA where such an analysis might work well (the operational side of the Weather Service is such a place). The problem in much of what I am discussing here is on the benefit side, because research in this case is not R&D for a product but research into understanding natural phenomena that might or might not yield extremely valuable products down the road. For instance, the interaction between the ENSO cycle, other oscillations and hurricane creation and intensity might make for reliable landfalling hurricane forecasts–or it might not. It might be we can predict droughts a year or two out–would that be worth some money if, say, California knew that this years big rains were to be followed by three years of drought? It could literally be worth billions given the dependence of California agriculture on water supplies. And what is the cost benefit analysis to collecting raw data? Data that is irrecoverable in the future if measurements are not made today? Data necessary to develop new forecasting tools, such as, for instance, the new HRR forecasting tools deployed across the country recently that allow for earlier warnings on tornadic and straight-line wind events and higher resolution (and more successful) forecasts over 1-2 day windows. NOAA funded research spans the gamut from developing and testing operational tools, which probably could be evaluated on a cost-benefit analysis, to developing new monitoring abilities, which are harder to cost out because sometimes you learn there are things you didn’t know about because you had never measured them (such as some high levels of airborne carcinogens from oil and gas well pads), to blue-sky research where you have no idea if you are going to really get something good and so is nearly impossible to evaluate purely with a cost-benefit tool.

      One last thought: Certain Congressmen (e.g., Lamar Smith) have said they want to move all climate monitoring and climate change research into NOAA and remove it entirely from NASA and possibly from NSF. Given this budget being focused on specifically cutting out both monitoring and research, how much does this look simply like cost-benefit and how much does it look like politics?

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  2. geodoodler says :

    There are a lot of academic questions that I’m sure most scientists would like to see attacked by the government but the government is supposed to be for the benefit of all the people not just the circle of academics. Academia has been unsuccessful in convincing even me that large sums of taxpayers money need to be spent on trying to figure out the climate. As I have said to one of my other geophysicist friends who agrees with you, the geologic record is fairly detailed about the rise and fall of sealevel over the past millions of years and until sealevel measurements appear in the many graphs of temperature and etc. that are used to try to scare us about global warming and until the models demonstrate by post prediction (running the models with negative time) that they predict sea levels of the past with some confidence, I will remain a skeptic. I look at the horrendous inaccuracy of hurricane prediction models and I have to wonder why anyone bothers to look at them. The modeling of such complex events is really beyond our capability right now.

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    • cjonescu says :

      I’m not sure what aspects of sea levels over time (or in the modern day) cause you such heartburn. Which sea levels of the past are you referring to? Certainly the Pleistocene high and low stands work pretty well with the volumes of ice in and out of the ocean. And there are plenty of groups working with both satellite and sea level gauges to monitor the modern rise of sea level (one here at CU has data and plots at sealevel.colorado.edu; they get 8 cm over the past 20 years).

      I am also unsure why you are so disappointed with hurricane predictions. One of the large efforts within the forecasting community is to examine the success of predictions (the term they tend to use is “skill”, which is in some ways a measure of success beyond either simple climatology or extrapolation); a review at Weather Underground (https://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/hurricane-intensity-forecast-models-are-improving) might be of interest, but there are also publications dealing with this. Hurricane forecasting and climate research are two rather different ends of meteorology.

      Why spend money doing climate research? As a geologist, I look at the currently stable sand dunes across eastern Colorado into Nebraska–dunes that were active in the *Holocene*–and know it wouldn’t take much of a push to make that desert again. The Holocene history in the Sierra Nevada, recorded within meadow deposits, shows radical changes in vegetation; for instance, the large modern sequoia groves are only about 3000-4000 years old. Modern agriculture–indeed, modern civilization–has been tuned to a very narrow climatic range. We are talking about the potential loss of trillions of dollars and millions of lives. If you take out insurance against fire for a $100,000 house, doesn’t it make sense to try to do something similar for a multi trillion dollar global economy? It would be hard to find a scientific topic more justified, even if it is a challenging topic.

      Finally, the very simplest part of global warming is pretty darn trivial. Greenhouse gases raise global average temperature, CO2 rise is extremely well documented, and the increase in isotopically dead carbon in the atmosphere points to releases of buried carbon (which balances pretty nicely with estimates of consumption of fossil fuels). There are issues with how much warming goes with how much CO2 and CH4, and there are issues with the disequilibrium state through which we must pass (ocean overturning on the millennial timescale sets the minimum time to reach any sort of steady state), all of which are important for trying to estimate the decadal scale variations in global climate, and there remain large challenges for regional climate changes,but the global picture is pretty clear. Frankly, from where I sit, the one thing that makes no sense whatsoever is to abandon attempts to study this.

      To fully embrace your logic, no scientific research should be done on the government’s dime. You are of course welcome to your opinion; I am sure there are others who share it. No single government program benefits all the people: all of us pay money to rescue people building nice beach houses in places that we as geologists know will get wiped out. Money goes to cure diseases we won’t get. Go back and look at Vannever Bush’s reports that justified the creation of NSF (the post titled “Priorities” links it with some discussion) and see what you think. Probably you will disagree with Bush, but he laid out the motivations from a more basic level and more thoroughly than I can here.

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