Do we really need a National Weather Service?

Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute makes an interesting argument against the US government subsidizing weather forecasting by maintaining a National Weather Service.

Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds' thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting.

The NWS claims that it supports industries like aviation and shipping, but if they provide a valuable contribution to business, it stands to reason business would willingly support their services. If that is the case, the Service is just corporate welfare. If they would not, it is just a waste.

As for hurricanes, the insurance industry has a compelling interest in understanding them. In a world without a National Weather Service, the insurance industry would probably have sponsored something very like the National Hurricane Center at one or more universities. Those replacements would also not be exploited for political purposes.

As it stands today, the public is forced to pay more than $1 billion per year for the NWS. With the federal deficit exceeding a trillion dollars, the NWS is easily overlooked, but it shouldn't be. It may actually be dangerous.

It sounds reasonable, but there are several flaws in the argument pointed out by Dr. Ryan N. Maue at the global warming debunking site Watts Up With That:

First, the CEI lowers itself when using the language of the left; hijack is not a term to be used for emergency warnings on the radio. Private radio and private television meteorologists cut-in all the time to their local stations for up-to-date weather information. If not in front of a TV or radio, they use their handheld devices. But where do these private outfits get their data? Where do these private outfits get their forecasts from? It's the National Weather Service! In one way or another, almost the entire private weather forecasting industry is dependent upon the services provided by the government including NOAA, NWS, and even NASA with other data sharing arrangements with various world governments.

Indeed the Weather Underground, the Weather Channel, and Accuweather may simply reprint the forecast numbers of temperature and precipitation chances directly from the National Digital Forecast Database put out by the NWS. I know of many nationwide local television meteorologists that sometimes phone it in by forecasting MOS everyday. Regardless, the NWS forecasts or the output from the many different numerical weather prediction products is the first or second place that private forecasters go for guidance.

For libertarians and even some conservatives, the idea that the government can do anything better than private industry is a non-starter. But weather forecasting is so vital to so many areas of our economy that it is both reasonable and logical for the federal government to subsidize forecasts and a warning system. That notion is born out in the numbers of lives saved as a result of technological advances made by the NWS and its sister organizations.

In the end, some aspects of scientific inquiry can only be funded by government. Gone are the days when a Cavendish or Rutherford could change the face of the world by conducting experiments on a shoestring in an old, drafty country house. The cost of doing cutting edge science has gotten beyond the private sector and, while care must be taken with the public purse, can only be realized by using government funds.

The US declined to participate in the hugely expensive Hadron Super Collider at the CERN facility in Switzerland. This was probably a prudent move given the cost overruns and the paltry results we've seen so far. But other projects might receive more positive support. The point being, funding a National Weather Service is in the interest of all Americans and we should continue to do so.

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