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The Three-Story Structure of Theory and Applications

I’m told that one country’s government weather service is a three-story building. On the top floor are theoretical climatologists and meteorologists. They are striving to elaborate the theory that underlies human understanding of the earth’s weather systems and how they change over time. Their work is highly technical and at times has no stated purpose other than satisfying the curiosity of the scientist attempting to find answers to puzzling questions. As they do their work, they are searching for fundamentally new insights. The failure rate of the top floor is high, but the payoff of new developments can be transformative.

The second story of the building is populated by modelers of real weather components across the globe. They are attempting to use newly formulated theories to design new procedures for forecasting weather and modeling climate. They test their models on real data assembled over time, indirectly evaluating new theoretical developments. As they attempt to improve on current techniques, they are pushing the frontier of practice. Many times, they examine historical data as the evidentiary base on which to make their judgments. The success rate of the second floor generally exceeds that of the third floor, but its successes tend most often to be incremental improvements. When the second-floor researchers are successful, they tend to solve some weakness of the existing body of practice, through testing new practices against the old.

The ground floor is populated by weather forecasters, applied meteorologists, who provide the public, the government, and companies the daily prediction of temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, and cloud coverage throughout the country. When they perform at their peak, they are implementing newly proven innovations from the second floor. To the general population, they are the face of the weather service. Hence, the staff on the first floor receive the vast majority of the appreciation for correct predictions and almost all criticisms for incorrect ones.

Thus, the three stories move from theory to application. One building. Vastly different enterprises. I’ve assumed the bottom floor was chosen to be application-oriented because it is the group with the greatest outreach to diverse publics. They respond to “walk-in” trade.

Of course, the value of the three floors depends on the use of the stairways linking them together. Is there movement across floors? Is the movement uni-directional? Are the theoreticians made aware of failures on the first floor? Are the first-floor forecasters aware of the assumptions in the newest model promoted by the second floor? Are there any people who work on multiple floors?

Finally, the variation in visibility of the three floors can affect a superficial evaluation of the product of the building. It’s easy for someone who knows nothing about climate and weather to assume that the first floor houses the most important group in the building. After all, that floor delivers the products and services of the entire building. If there are funding pressures, following that logic, the first floor must be privileged over the higher floors.

Such logic ignores the knowledge that the third floor is the origin of what the first floor accomplishes in future years. Emptying out the second and third floors is not unlike a struggling farm unit deciding to preserve only the harvesting equipment and stopping purchase of seeds. It might be cost efficient for one season, but then it’s out of business. Similarly, with each new introduction of devices and platforms from technologists, it’s tempting to view them as autonomously produced inventions. We can easily make the mistake by judging that only such visible innovation work is of importance. Yet many of those innovations depend on basic science developments years earlier.

Much of basic research and scholarship is academia’s third floor. While it’s easy to criticize a publication that is read by only 100’s of people, publications exactly like that can be identified as the seed of new ideas and new ways of thinking that transform the lives of large populations decades later. There is value in the constant pursuit of pushing the edges of human knowledge. Future populations will live at that edge.

We don’t do well with a one-story building.

2 thoughts on “The Three-Story Structure of Theory and Applications

  1. Interesting comments. I wish all Americans especially politicians would see the value of three story buildings in many aspects of life. And the need for all three to be supported and to communicate with each other using “good staircases” or elevators. Good points.

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