Mary Erickson of the National Weather Service talks about organizational culture, women in STEM and the future of the National Weather Service

Earlier this year, the National Weather Service bid farewell to its longtime chief, Louis W. Uccellini, who retired after a career in meteorology. Uccellini guided the agency through organizational change and positioned its workforce for future success. And at his side, for 5 years, to ensure that everything works out, is the deputy director of the agency, Mary Erickson. In this interview, we talk with her about this small government agency with a big mission.

The National Weather Service has seen monumental change in the face of increasingly extreme weather events over the past two years. We have seen a record number of billion dollar disasters and two of the most active hurricane seasons on record. The National Weather Service has responded by adding stronger warning language to weather forecasts, improving decision support services for public safety officials, and beefing up your models and supercomputers. What remains to be done?

These advancements have made the National Weather Service stronger and better equipped to fulfill its public safety mission. Each experience serves as a lesson learned and fuels our continued drive to innovate. Several initiatives on the horizon will strengthen our science and service capabilities:

  • A top priority is to transform our service delivery. Last year, we conducted an equity assessment, pursuant to President Biden’s Executive Order 13985. We asked the tough questions: Are our products and services available to everyone in the United States? Are vulnerable populations benefiting from the services we provide, and if not, how do we need to improve? Our research has indicated that we still have work to do to make our services equitable and accessible to everyone. We are developing an action plan for service equity, which draws heavily on social science, involves new products and requires new forms of staff training.
  • We are also laying the groundwork for future forecast improvements. This summer, new supercomputers will provide greater computing power to support planned model upgrades and more sophisticated Earth observations. And NOAA has just launched a new geostationary weather satellite called GOES-T, which will track destructive wildfires, lightning, Pacific Ocean-based storms, dense fog and other hazards threatening the US West Coast. United States, Hawaii and Alaska. It will also monitor solar activity and space weather to provide early warnings of disruptions to power grids, communications and navigation systems.
  • Addressing climate change is a top priority for the Biden administration and NOAA leadership. One of the objectives is to improve the resilience of communities to the impacts of climate change. NOAA is preparing to launch a new Climate-Ready Nation initiative, and with our long history of delivering services at the national, regional and local levels, the National Weather Service will be a key climate service outlet and contributor to this effort. .

You’ve fought your way to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field. What barriers for women still exist in STEM careers, and how are you working to remove those barriers?

I have mentored young female scientists throughout my journey to Senior Executive Service, to ensure that the rungs of the ladder are secure for the women who come up behind me. Part of what drives my passion in this area is the knowledge that diverse teams – which include gender diversity – excel at far higher success rates than homogeneous teams. Women are a valuable and integral part of the National Weather Service family, and we make tremendous contributions in atmospheric science and adjacent STEM fields that support NOAA’s growth and success.

I championed an effort led by women leaders in the National Weather Service to identify ways to improve the recruitment, retention, and inclusion of women in our workforce. Our first step was to listen and learn in order to better understand where our organization falls short in providing an inclusive environment. The group identified a number of steps we can take, such as increased schedule flexibility and job sharing. They also recommended that we conduct “stay interviews” to better understand the barriers so that we can overcome them. We quickly developed an action plan for these changes and are in the process of implementing them. In addition, NOAA is actively addressing barriers through programs and increased accountability against sexual harassment.

The senseless killing of George Floyd has been a national catalyst for change, including a renewed focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in socially conscious organizations. How did this national movement influence the organizational culture of the National Weather Service?

We take steps to ensure that the National Weather Service is a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible workplace, and that all of our employees feel safe and supported. Unequivocal.

National Weather Service employees are part of the fabric of every American community, and we have been deeply affected by the death of George Floyd and the national events that followed. To begin to heal from this trauma, last summer we started a national conversation about race and diversity through a program we called “Can we talk?” which brought together people from all walks of life to discuss diversity and race.

We followed these conversations with an organization-wide team of Tigers to explore how to improve diversity and better understand the challenges faced by Black and Indigenous people of color within our organization. brave honesty.

Inspired by the team’s recommendations, we have drawn up an action plan which is currently being rolled out. As an exciting first step, we released agency-wide guidelines on creating various hiring panels to improve the quality of hiring decisions and reduce bias in the hiring process. For all NWS job interviews, we require that at least one question posed to applicants focuses on diversity and inclusion, and all supervisory performance plans reflect responsibility for fostering an inclusive workplace where diversity and individual differences are valued and leveraged to achieve organizational goals.

Extreme weather conditions are undeniably on the rise. The US weather industry is experiencing historic expansion. With these external pressures and demands, how is the National Weather Service meeting the challenge?

We remain focused on our core mission of providing reliable and accurate weather forecasting and decision support services to the United States, even as we continue to transform the way people receive, understand and act on information. The advancements we are working on today through continued investment in our people, technology and partnerships will enable us to respond to the present moment over time and as societal needs grow and change. Extreme weather in a changing climate creates new societal challenges, and we recognize that partnerships are our most valuable tool for advancing new science and transforming our capabilities and services for a more informed and safer country.

What is the return on taxpayers’ investment in the National Weather Service?

The Americans fund the National Weather Service at about three dollars per person per year. In return, we provide advanced knowledge about dangerous weather conditions so people can prepare for them and stay safe. We also provide year-round weather, water, and climate forecasts, outlooks, and scientific data to inform business planning and operations to support the U.S. economy. We provide this service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in every county nationwide. The decision support we provide to public safety officials helps them make tough calls faster and more efficiently. The National Weather Service also enables the growth and success of the entire US weather industry – from your favorite forecasting app to your favorite TV weatherman – the foundation of US weather and climate forecasting begins with investment of the public in science, technology and research. at NOAA.

Yet the United States experienced $20 billion weather and climate disasters in 2021 that killed 688 people. The staggering cost of these disasters amounted to more than 145 billion dollars in total damage. We still have a lot of work to do, which is why it is essential for the safety and economic security of the country to continue to prioritize the transition of innovation in forecasting science to our operations.

What is the future of the National Weather Service? What will its products, services and workforce look like in 10 years?

We are building a workforce that reflects the communities we serve, is interdisciplinary to address a wide range of weather, water and climate challenges, and remains grounded in public service. Over the next decade, we will lean forward to ensure that we are recognized as a science-based service agency with a people-centric approach. We know there are gaps today to ensure that our services are equitably available and usable, and we are committed to addressing these issues. We will continuously evaluate services and assess gaps to ensure that our staff and services are available when and where you need us to meet new and changing community needs while ensuring that we provide forecasts and timely, accurate and robust decision support services.

This vision will be supported by flexible and innovative working tools and paradigms, and our observation, modeling and dissemination infrastructure will intelligently embody the flexibility of next-generation technologies to take a detailed “pulse of the planet” and transform it. into forecasts that provide a clear view. image of upcoming weather events…. days, weeks and months in advance. Cloud-based tools will allow centralized experts and community forecasters to deliver the “one NWS forecast” when and where you need it to save lives.