Republican Lawmakers Push NOAA to Incorporate Private Sector Innovation

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Publication date: 
12 July 2017
Number: 
93

At a House Science Committee hearing, Republican members asked representatives from private industry how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can better leverage new environmental data sources and technologies, while Democratic members warned about proposed funding cuts to environmental monitoring programs at NOAA and EPA.

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House Environment Subcommittee Chair Andy Biggs (R-AZ)

At the June hearing, Environment Subcommittee Chair Andy Biggs (R-AZ), pictured above, and other Republican committee members pushed for a stronger private sector contribution to NOAA’s environmental monitoring activities.

(Image credit – House Science Committee)

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At a June hearing, members of the House Science Committee’s Environment Subcommittee heard from two industry leaders and an academic researcher about potential breakthrough technologies in atmospheric and oceanic data collection. Subcommittee Chair Andy Biggs (R-AZ) convened the hearing to explore ways for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to more effectively and rapidly utilize such innovations to fulfill its mission.

Biggs pointed out NOAA spends billions of dollars each year on environmental observations and data collection to enable weather prediction and to “ensure citizens are kept out of harm’s way when severe weather arises.” He pondered whether private enterprise could contribute more than it does, saying,

In the 21st century, the landscape has changed. The federal government isn’t the only game in town, nor, I would argue, should it be. … By partnering with our commercial sector, we can decrease government costs and ensure that data streams continue to flow.

The industry witnesses explained that while NOAA is actively partnering with companies to incorporate commercial data through established programs like the National Mesonet Program, it has often been slow to bring new technologies and data streams online. The witnesses emphasized that NOAA should focus on developing a robust framework for public–private–academic partnerships that will better facilitate the transfer of data and technologies between these three sectors of the U.S. weather enterprise.

Committee members and witnesses also nodded to the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, the major NOAA authorization law signed into law in April. Among its other major provisions, it directs NOAA to partner with private industry in a Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program. Through the program, NOAA purchases private companies’ weather data, obtained using advanced observation technologies, and assesses whether they can augment the performance of the agency’s weather prediction models.

NOAA would benefit from greater private sector partnering, say witnesses

The two industry witnesses — Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics, and Sebastien de Halleux, chief operating officer at Saildrone, Inc. — pointed to their companies’ successes in acquiring quality atmospheric and oceanic data more cost effectively than NOAA. Panasonic, for example, currently sells NOAA a subset of its real-time wind, temperature, and moisture data through the National Mesonet Program, which NOAA then ingests into its weather models.

But Jacobs testified that NOAA is not utilizing some of the measurements that Panasonic collects, such as its icing and turbulence data, which he said could significantly improve weather forecasts. Using these additional data, Panasonic has developed its own global weather prediction model that it runs on its supercomputers independently from the government. Jacobs has claimed that thanks to its improved observational data, the Panasonic model can outperform NOAA’s flagship Global Forecasting System.

Jacobs further explained that a private company like Panasonic can move more quickly than NOAA in improving its models and processes, because it does not have to go through the years of quality and reliability testing that NOAA requires when implementing major model upgrades. De Halleux added that culture also plays a role in the differences between how the private and other sectors operate, explaining, “There’s always reluctance in scientific organizations to introduce new technologies because as you introduce new technologies you introduce new ways of working.

Both industry witnesses indicated that NOAA would benefit from a well-defined framework for public–private partnerships. De Halleux explained that the primary role of the private sector is to augment NOAA’s capabilities and help it achieve its science mission more efficiently:

Companies like Saildrone harness the best of the private sector, which is rapid iteration R&D to solve complex engineering problems very cost efficiently. But we are not scientists, and therefore our only mission is to solve engineering problems to make agencies like NOAA and NASA more efficient from a science perspective. Therefore the role that NOAA plays is a critical one on the science front, and our hope is that by contribution from the private sector we can accelerate the science to answer questions that further the mission of those agencies.

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Saildrone, Inc. ocean research drone

By deploying unmanned surface vehicles like the one pictured above, start-up company Saildrone, Inc. claims it can achieve 90 percent cost savings in acquiring key oceanic data that NOAA currently collects through its research vessel fleet.

(Image credit – Saildrone, Inc.)

Private company: Saildrone, Inc.

When asked, de Halleux affirmed his company has had an “outstanding” experience thus far collaborating with NOAA, which has helped it assess the quality and value of its oceanic data from unmanned surface vehicles, also known as ocean research drones. Saildrone’s next step, now that its technology is proven, is to work with NOAA to transfer the data it is collecting effectively into operations.

Jacobs concurred with de Halleux, saying it is a “very good thing” to have the opportunity to have a business relationship with NOAA. He did suggest, however, that NOAA is not taking full advantage of all opportunities to incorporate new innovations.

When asked by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) how the agency can more efficiently innovate in the service of its mission, Jacobs replied,

Probably the quickest way to advance NOAA’s mission is to harness the capabilities in the private sector and let the private sector probably drive the pace. So setting up a sustainable business model of public-private partnership between the public sector and private industry would be a pretty [good] way to fast-track a lot of the innovations coming out of the private sector.

Dems say Trump cuts would ‘severely limit’ environmental monitoring

Two of the leading Democrats present at the hearing — Subcommittee Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) — welcomed the private sector and university witnesses, but questioned why a witness from NOAA had not been invited to testify given the hearing’s focus on the agency.

The Democrats focused their statements primarily on the Trump administration’s proposed funding cuts to environmental monitoring programs at NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency. Bonamici also drew attention to “the troubling fact that there have been no nominations to fill any appointed positions at NOAA since the beginning of this Administration,” adding that this “vacuum of leadership has left the agency … rudderless, with line offices neglected.

Bonamici warned “cuts to numerous NOAA grant programs would severely limit the ability of the agency to meet its mission on environmental monitoring and observations.” She objected to the administration’s proposals to cut environmental research as well, specifically calling out the proposed 50 percent cut to EPA’s Office of Research and Development and 32 percent cut to NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.

Bonamici urged the subcommittee to consider the importance of the federal agencies’ role in sponsoring S&T alongside the private sector’s role:

As we listen to our witnesses, let’s acknowledge that federal agencies play an integral role in funding and accelerating the development of new technology to fit specific needs of niche markets or entire sectors.

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