Talking leadership with the head of the National Weather Service


A pedestrian walks past a pile of snow, and the words "Spring Starts Here" in a store window, during a late winter snow storm in Boston, Massachusetts March 19, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT) (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
March 20, 2013

The extreme weather conditions experienced in the United States — blizzards, intense hurricanes and tornadoes — make the predictions of the National Weather Service critical to savings lives and property. Last month, Louis W. Uccellini was named director of the National Weather Service, putting him in charge of managing the day-to-day operations, planning for the future and making sure the service has access to the best science and the latest technology. Uccellini spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

What led you to a career in meteorology?

My parents used to tell a story that even as I was learning to talk, I would ask about clouds or get excited about snow and major thunderstorms. In grammar school, I read books explaining how the weather works. I used to stay up late and sneak out into the hallway to catch the 11 o’clock weather update on the news. I attended the University of Wisconsin thinking I’d go right into forecasting, but the professors there saw I was good at setting up research problems and asking the ‘why’ questions. I wound up going through for a PhD and then going to Goddard Space Flight Center.

After 24 years at the National Weather Service, what has changed?

I was enticed to come over to the National Weather Service in 1989 when they were planning a modernization focused on the warnings for severe storms. I could see that this was a game changer for the Weather Service and the community as a whole, and I wanted to be part of it. In the 1980s, numerical models would only run out for three days, with little confidence in predicting extreme weather events. We have been able to expand the limits of prediction out to seven days with enough credibility and consistency for decision-makers in the emergency management community, transportation and elsewhere.

If you would have told me we would be making forecasts out seven days in advance during my career, I would have said this is something for the next generation — and yet it’s happening. We’re pushing the limits of prediction.

What are your goals in terms of moving the agency forward?

As a science-based service organization, we want to improve and extend the forecast capabilities. If we can take this predictive capability and work with communities that deal with hydrological or coastal issues, we can predict health vectors and get into areas that affect human behavior and health. I am working to finance the operational computing capacity so we can pull these higher resolution models and better data assimilation systems into the operational framework. Finally, we have to work to improve the working conditions for our workforce by giving them the tools they need to succeed.

The Weather Service has faced some financial irregularities in the past and you were appointed in part to restore fiscal credibility. How are you tackling this assignment?

I’ve been in the Weather Service for 24 years, so I’ve brought a sense of the historical aspects on decision-making and clearly understand the budget uncertainties. I know about the importance of getting a creditable budget process in place for the stakeholders to better understand how the Weather Service is spending its money, setting its priorities and allocating its resources. It has to be transparent to our stakeholders and workforce throughout the Weather Service so that people have a better understanding of the decisions that we make. We have to align Weather Service strategic goals with the resources made available to the agency, to make sure that we are in fact working on the highest priority items as we advance the Weather Service into the future.

How do you attract top scientists and keep the workforce motivated?

The fact is the National Weather Service matters. You see this over and over again in the forecasts we provide for extreme weather events. The workforce is committed to the mission, and my job is to make sure that they are supported and that they see I’m working on their behalf. One thing that excites me to come to work every day is the workforce’s commitment in ways that are just hard to explain. They are dedicated to protecting life and property and take it very seriously, so they go the extra mile.

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