Sunday, February 26, 2017

Informing Decisions Locally and Globally

La Nino and La Nina GraphNOAA’s vision for the future – healthy ecosystems, communities and economies that are resilient in the face of change – has no geographic boundary.  A coastal community seeking to mitigate impacts of rising sea level can use predictions derived from global climate models.  Improved understanding of the impacts of coastal development is informing local managers and communities of risks to human health and the ecosystem.  Long-term investments in climate science have dramatically improved our understanding of the variability in the climate system; investments in research, monitoring, and modeling now allow us to predict the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO affects temperatures, water resources, living resources, and storm activity. Understanding its trends and impacts allow for advance warning and preparation.  To assess post-earthquake/tsunami radiation dispersion from Fukushima around the world, NOAA used models to understand how, where, and when chemical species and other materials are transported through the air and water.  NOAA will continue to respond to critical questions and challenges on local to global scales, how they impact people and communities, now and in the future.

Understanding Human Behavior

Tsunami Evacuation SignSustaining coastal and marine ecosystem services is widely recognized as one of the most important environmental challenges of the 21st century. Given that the principal threat to these ecosystems is derived from manmade sources, strategies for preserving or recovering a coastal or marine ecosystem should consider human use patterns and values. Incorporating economics, social and behavioral sciences into emerging integrated ecosystem models and assessments can provide policy makers with an understanding of both the value of ecosystem services as well as the trade-offs associated with alternative management scenarios.

Incorporating the “human dimension” into NOAA’s research mission also allows for improved design and delivery of NOAA’s products and services, by increasing our understanding of what information is relevant, and identifying how people receive and use the information provided.  Using social sciences also enables NOAA to evaluate how and to whom the benefits of its services accrue.  This includes understanding who constituents are, how they use information to make decisions, how these decisions map into changes in health and wealth, and how they interpret and respond to regulations which can help target future improvements to, for example, forecasts of hurricanes, heat waves, and harmful algal blooms.  To truly realize the benefits of this investment in forecast improvements, society must understand and respond appropriately to the information provided.  NOAA seeks to enhance and expand the integration of social sciences with NOAA’s natural sciences to fully understand the services ecosystems provide to society and how people value them; determine how to best engage the public; to help define more specific social and cultural objectives for communities; increase the social and economic returns of NOAA’s research investment; and provide guidance for tailoring technology development and implementation for its most effective use.

To effectively carry out its mission, NOAA requires the research necessary to design and deliver services that match the needs of constituents.  Sound and relevant corporate social science will allow NOAA to consistently articulate the value its products and services deliver to the nation and help ensure that NOAA’s resources are allocated optimally across programs and objectives.

Communicating Uncertainty

Uncertainty cone in hurricane trackUncertainties affect almost all aspects of NOAA's work, including satellite measurements, assessments of past climate trends, and fish stock surveys.  The National Research Council (NRC) defines uncertainty as “the condition whereby the state of a system cannot be known unambiguously.  Probability is one way of expressing uncertainty.”  Describing uncertainty in the context of environmental science and prediction, the NRC states that, “The chaotic character of the atmosphere, coupled with inevitable inadequacies in observations and computer models, results in forecasts that always contain uncertainties.  These uncertainties generally increase with forecast lead time and vary with weather situation and location.  Uncertainty is thus a fundamental characteristic of weather, seasonal climate, and hydrological prediction, and no forecast is complete without a description of its uncertainty.”  

Decision makers and the public require that NOAA provide information on the uncertainty in its prediction and projection products to assess the significance and utility of the information and to weigh the information with respect to decisions.  Consequently, NOAA requires research, development, and implementation of methods and capabilities for quantifying and communicating uncertainty.  Research is required to understand, for situations and applications, the amount of uncertainty; factors contributing to uncertainty; how to minimize the uncertainty; and how best to communicate that uncertainty.  Public understanding of the uncertainty for NOAA’s products and services will help the public and decision makers make the best choices.

Transferring Knowledge and Technology

NOAA RISA annual reportR&D at NOAA is outcome-oriented, focusing on the ultimate use of its investment, such as improved community resiliency in the face of climate change.  Achieving outcomes depends upon the effective transfer of knowledge and tools into applications useful to society, including new or improved capabilities in NOAA’s operational services.  Effective transfer, or “transition,” as it is called within NOAA, requires planning and collaborative efforts between research and applications teams.   

NOAA continually seeks to increase the transition of information and technologies from R&D to applications. This involves design and stakeholder engagement in addition to science and engineering.  Transition occurs in two phases: demonstration (e.g., the use of test-beds or rapid prototyping to prove that a technology works) and deployment (e.g., the integration of new people, equipment, or techniques into an operational environment).  Demonstration is a part of R&D; deployment is part of operations; both are required for transition to occur.  Transition may occur from NOAA-conducted R&D to NOAA application, NOAA-conducted R&D to an external partner’s application, or external partner-conducted R&D to NOAA applications.

For example, the development and transition of the Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System, which provides information on the location, extent, and the potential for development or movement of harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, required the focused effort of researchers, modelers, and operations personnel from NOAA and its partners to bring the project to fruition.  Dedicated resources, including  test beds and proving grounds,  increase collaborations between those who perform research and those who perform operations, and build support for continual infusion of R&D results into applications at NOAA and beyond.   

In addition to technology transition, NOAA R&D yields the improved understanding necessary to support business and policy decisions through publications, consultations, and training on specific tools.  For example, Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) support integrated, place-based research across a range of social, natural, and physical science disciplines to help decision makers understand their options in the face of climate change and variability at the regional level.