NOAA has been faulted for failing to warn various countries about the impending tsunami. I’m not even going to try to pretend that this was NOAA’s finest hour. Essentially, the problem boils down to that NOAA has no “contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world.” Several senators are predictably outraged.
For me, this once again shows how weak our scientific infrastructure is. Ignoring NOAA’s lack of seismic detection equipment throughout much of the world due to a dearth of funding (this led to a 2.5 hour delay in figuring out that there had been an earthquake), NOAA, an overworked and underfunded agency, was supposed to be on the ball on this one. Sorry Sen. Collins, but you get what you pay for.
In popular culture, what bothers me about the depiction of science isn’t the mad scientist character (it’s so hackneyed, it can’t be taken seriously), but the inaccurate depiction of the resources scientists have. In the popular mind, scientists have pristine labs with giant, all-knowing gizmotrons that can calculate and do anything rapidly. In reality, most scientists are operating on shoe-string budgets (business people would never tolerate such conditions) with barely enough resources (and are putting in very long hours). Consequently, most people can not comprehend that NOAA simply wouldn’t be able to react in time.