More Science Infrastructure Follies

I’ve posted a few times about the consequences of underfunding (or “de-funding“) the public health infrastructure. Now, it’s spread to climatology and oceanography. By way of Andrew Sullivan, comes this letter (italics mine):

I spent my graduate school career studying hurricanes. At each conference I went to, starting in the late 90s, the panels talked about their thoughts on the most vulnerable city in America, on their nightmare scenario: it was always New Orleans. Sea water would inundate the city, overtaking thousands of people; toxic waste from Louisiana’s chemical industry would further foul the area, rendering it uninhabitable. It was not idle speculation; the strength of storm required to accomplish this is climatologically possible for much of the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico. Do not be tricked into parsing overtopped vs. undermined levees – scientists have long known that ‘filling the bowl’ in New Orleans was likely with a strong hurricane. Even if preventing this was not possible, FEMA and other agencies should have had concrete plans on how to deal with this eventuality. They’ve been shown to have none that could get aid to the city faster than nearly 4 days after the storm ended.

I spent a few weeks at the end of my time in grad school working at one of NOAA’s Hurricane Research labs in Miami. Cabinets full of data gathered on reconnaissance flights sat, unexamined. There was no funding to have anyone go through the reams of data, gathered at high cost and risk to the scientists aboard the flights, even to be able to put it on the web for academic researchers to use. Several staff members told me that they’d love to be able to hire someone like me, but their funding was restricted because of the war in Iraq, and they would not be able to add any positions for several years, at least.

Analyzing these data is really important, because it would allow more accurate prediction of storm movement, particularly over the short term. Infrastructure is like car insurance: you only notice it when you don’t have it and then suddenly need it.

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