Friday, September 23, 2011

Funding of the Norman Weather Center - An edifice complex

Quite some time ago now, I wrote an essay regarding the funding of the Norman Weather Center (NWC).  Some recent information I received from Ed Kessler (former Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory) suggests that the fallout continues from the political decision to divert some of the underground oil storage tanks cleanup fund to this purpose.  A few of us chose to offer our feeble protests in response to this environmentally unfriendly political decision by OU and the state government, but we were too few and marginalized to be effective, so we were simply ignored.

The growth of meteorological science in Norman was not the result of having a fancy building (with its imported Italian marble staircase and gurgling water feature).  Rather, its growth into what it has become was driven by the science and the participating scientists, who generally shared cramped and decidedly unfancy facilities for most of their histories.  The connection between the local OKC forecast office of the National Weather Service, the OU Department (before they became a "School") of Meteorology, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the Oklahoma Climate Survey, and some other facilities represented a pretty loose collaboration of agencies.  From my perception of things, they really didn't interact that much or that well.  There's a host of reasons for that - but there always was some level of interaction despite being scattered in different physical locations.

Mere proximity doesn't mean interaction will necessarily follow.  Interaction among people flows from the needs and interests of the participants.  It can't be mandated effectively from above - it must come from a mutual desire to interact by working staff members in the respective agencies.  There may have been a few examples of collaboration since the construction and occupation of the NWC building, but it might be difficult to show conclusively that they arose simply as a result of proximity and wouldn't otherwise have developed even if the agencies were still separated physically.  The security paranoia that dominates government has led to restricted access to the NOAA components of the NWC.  There still is only modest interaction among the elements of the NWC, as I see it.  I'm certainly not opposed to proximity, per se, but it was promoted as necessary for the good things that were promised in order to justify the funding decision.

The price we paid for this fancy new building (that now attracts visitors who just want to see the fancy new building!) still seems excessive to me.  If we've seen an increase in visitation by meteorological professionals from outside of Norman, that's a good thing, but did we need to have a fancy new edifice to accomplish that?  I doubt it.

I wanted to use this blog to remind folks of what was done to allow us to have this building.  I imagine that few folks in the NWC know about or remember the environmental price paid by Oklahomans to allow us meteorologists to have this facility.  Our little community of professionals is permanently stained by the shame of putting our comfort ahead of the environmental needs of all Oklahomans.  The ultimate irony is that we're supposed to be environmental professionals!