Interview With Dr. Robert M. White
Dr. White was awarded WMO's highest honour — the IMO Prize — by the Executive Committee in 1980. Among awards conferred on him in his own country may be mentioned the Godfrey L. Cabot Award for contributions to aeronautics (1966), the Cleveland Abbe Award for contributions to meteorology (1969), the fiftieth anniversary medal of the American Meteorological Society (1970), the Jesse L. Rosen-berger medal for distinguished research and public service (1971), the Rockefeller Public Service Award for protection of natural resources (1974), the David B. Stone Award for contributions to environment and society (1975), the Matthew Fontaine Maury Award for contributions to undersea exploration (1976), the International Conservation Award from the National Wildlife Federation (1977), the Neptune Award (American Oceanic Organization). Dr. White was recently honoured by the Government of France when he was designated Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur.
Because he has served in such high offices and received so many honours, those who have never met 'Bob' White may be surprised to learn that he will be only 58 years old on 13 February 1981. Thus we may reasonably hope that national and international scientific activities related to the natural environment will continue to be guided by his exceptional wisdom for many years to come.
H.T. — How did you find your way into meteorology as a career? What first interested you in meteorology?
R.M.W. — Just outside the city of Boston in the United States of America, where I was born and grew up, there was the Blue Hill Observatory. As a boy I frequently visited the observatory, and became fascinated with the instruments I saw there. That was my first introduction to meteorology. The director of the observatory was a professor at Harvard University, and his name was Charles Franklin Brooks. From my earliest years I had been very much interested in all facets of the planet Earth; I was interested in subjects like geology and astronomy, and so it was only natural that when I was a freshman at Harvard I should take a course in meteorology with Professor Brooks. During that course he offered me a summer job as a weather observer at the Blue Hill Observatory. And so my career in meteorology had begun. When the Second World War started and my country needed weather forecasters to support air force operations, I applied for, and was accepted as a weather officer. I was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to which I returned after the war to obtain my Master's degree and doctorate before becoming a research scientist in meteorology.
H.T. — You have had a varied career in meteorology and related fields. The positions you have held have been ones of increasing responsibility, both in your own country and internationally, and you have held several offices simultaneously. At the present time you are President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research which represents 48 universities of the USA which have atmospheric science programmes. Can you tell us what is behind this very varied and successful career?
R.M.W. — I guess I have been more fortunate than most through having been present when opportunities arose to participate in a variety of scientific and service activities in posts of increasing responsibility. Also I have been able to exercise my interests in the related fields of Earth sciences, ecology and natural resources. I have always been attracted by the challenge of a difficult job. I am fascinated not only by science but by the institutions of science. I have derived much satisfaction from being able to influence policies which govern our science and our service, both in the USA and internationally. I consider myself tremendously lucky to have been able to do this over the past forty years. There is always a certain moment when it is right to move aside to let a new and different leadership take over. I believe that institutions must grow and change, and that each person can contribute significantly to this growth and change. I have tried to give what I can to those institutions with which I have been associated — I hope with some success. When called upon to undertake new tasks and responsibilities I have always been willing so long as I felt that I could contribute usefully, and provided they were of significant importance and would be of benefit to mankind.
H.T. — I have been told, and I know from personal experience when working with you, that you are a restless and untiring individual. You are usually happy only when doing several jobs at the same time, always achieving good results from everything you participate in. Does this sort of life give you personal satisfaction? Or is there some other reason why you seem to be so busy all the time?
R.M.W. — I have always felt that any task one undertakes should be approached with enthusiasm and zest, otherwise one should leave it alone. I am a reasonably impatient person. When I take on a task I like to see it accomplished to my own personal satisfaction. I do get great enjoyment out of being involved in a number of different things at once. I seem to be the kind of person that can handle several jobs at a time, and moreover I can do this without being so immersed in my work that I cannot enjoy other aspects of life. I can enjoy the intellectual stimulation of a beautiful landscape, a great symphony, a good novel, a fine restaurant and the many other pleasures of life. But let us be fair. The work I have done is not mine alone. No individual could be involved in as many activities as I have been without relying on the support of his colleagues, and I have been blessed throughout my career in having had all sorts of wonderful people who were willing to join me in all kinds of projects. Much of the work for which I gain credit has actually been done by them.
H.T. — In 1963, under President John F. Kennedy, you were appointed Chief of the United States Weather Bureau. Then you were appointed Administrator of the Environmental Services Administration by President Johnson, and subsequently Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by President Nixon. You have been deeply involved in building new governmental institutions in your country, of successively greater scope, but all dealing with the Earth sciences and natural resources. NOAA has now become a major agency of the United States Government, concerned not only with the atmospheric sciences but with many other fields such as oceanography and fisheries. To a large extent it was you who was responsible for bringing NOAA into being. Was this a difficult task?
R.M.W. — The growth of this governmental institution concerned with the oceans, the atmosphere and other aspects of the environment was a stepwise evolution. It met the changing domestic and international needs of our Government. I was no more than a catalyst in a set of underlying dynamics that caused all of us to take a much broader look at the world about us. The problems that the world now faces require a more diversified, and at the same time comprehensive approach than in the past. Was bringing NOAA into being a difficult task? The answer is, of course, yes. Any change in an institution of long standing is difficult. You must realize that in creating NOAA we took three of the oldest governmental agencies in the USA and brought them together in a single new organization. The National Ocean Survey was founded during the administration of our third President, Thomas Jefferson, in 1807. The US Weather Bureau was founded in 1870 and the Fisheries Service was founded one year later, both during President Ulysses Grant's term of office. Melding governmental agencies with such traditions is difficult for the people involved, especially the leaders, and a process of adjustment has to take place. I believe that we were quite successful in bringing about this adjustment. NOAA now represents a major centre of strength to respond to the nation's concerns about the oceans and the atmosphere, and its contributions to national welfare are daily in evidence.
H.T. — What was the budget of NOAA when you left in 1977, and do you have any idea of what it is now?
R.M.W. — When I left, the budget of NOAA was about $750 million and today it approaches one thousand million dollars. I could add in parentheses that when I first came to Washington, D.C. in 1963, the Weather Bureau had a budget of only S60 million. Of course all the money does not go to support the weather services. It also supports many activities related to the oceans, fisheries, coastal zone management, satellites and so forth. Nevertheless, there has been rather a spectacular growth in the responsibility of NOAA since it was founded ten years ago. Over this period it has been given new and greater responsibilities for the protection of natural resources of all kinds and for monitoring the state of the planet Earth.
H.T. — Your career in international affairs has been as varied as that in the affairs of your own country. You have been involved in the work of many international organizations as a representative of the USA or as an expert. You played an important part in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, and subsequently you were head of the US Government's delegation on the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme which evolved from that conference. You have been involved with Unesco's Inter-governmental Oceanographic Commission and you have been associated with the non-governmental International Council of Scientific Unions. You have also been your country's chief negotiator in many bilateral arrangements, for example between the USA and the USSR on the exploration of the world's oceans and between the USA and France, again on problems of the oceans. In the domain of international affairs, my first question is about UNEP. Do you consider that UNEP has achieved the purposes for which it was created?
R.M.W. — I think that the United Nations Environment Programme is one of the most exciting now under way in the United Nations system. As you know, it was set up as a co-ordinating agency, and in my view it has been doing its job admirably. It did get away to a slow start, but in recent years I believe that its programme has come into focus. The progress in its Inland Seas programme, for example, has been excellent. This is the attempt by countries surrounding the Mediterranean to reduce the level of pollution in that sea. UNEP has been working very well with the specialized agencies of the United Nations, in particular co-operation with WMO has been outstandingly fruitful. UNEP has become the conscience of the world on environmental problems, and it is important that we have such a focus for those concerns. Yes, I consider that UNEP is indeed doing the work which it was set up to do. It must be remembered that in connexion with the environmental impact on social and economic conditions in countries throughout the world, questions are inevitably raised which have a high political content and I believe that UNEP has done very well in approaching an extremely difficult set of problems.
H.T. — From 1973 to 1977 you were the United States Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission. We hear quite a lot about the need to protect whales from over-exploitation. Can you tell us the purpose of this Commission? How big is it? Does it have a secretariat? What were your actual functions as a Commissioner? What role have you played in the protection of the world's whales?
Later, when I was appointed a Commissioner, working with the other nations I was in a position to assist in bringing about a new international management regime for whales which now guarantees that we will not see any species of these great mammals reduced to extinction. We agreed on a selective moratorium which is now going a long way towards restoring the world's whale population. The International Whaling Commission is a very interesting organization. At the time I was a Commissioner we had 14 members, which included nations engaged in commercial whaling as well as those which had ceased such activities. Whaling became a symbolic issue for the world environmental community, and the drive for better protection of whales was supported by many governments and by nongovernmental groups as well. During my time there we were able to raise the influence of its scientific committee as the pre-eminent arm of the Commission to decide, on a scientific basis, the quotas for commercial whaling and the nature of the management regime to be followed. Since 1973 we have reduced the number of whales taken commercially from about 43 000 a year to about 18 000. This has to be one of the most interesting and satisfying experiences of my career.
H.T. — Can you tell us something about your role in IOC and in the field of international oceanography?
R.M.W. — International oceanography has many similarities to international meteorology, although the problems in oceanography tend to be rather more regional than global in nature. An attack on the many outstanding oceanographic problems requires the same kind of international participation as it does in meteorology; it often requires extensive facilities for observations over large geographical areas. The IOC was founded specifically to provide a focus for international collaboration in oceano-graphic research. I guess the most significant contribution I made to IOC reflected my profound conviction that the oceans and atmosphere were part of the total global fluid system, and that the study of one required the study of the other. It would be impossible to provide weather services over land or sea without a knowledge of the ocean's interactions with the atmosphere. Conversely, oceanographic services could not be provided without a knowledge of the impact of the overlying atmosphere. It was in this vein that I sought to stimulate the oceanographic community towards developing the International Global Ocean Station System — which is simply the oceanographic analogue of the World Weather Watch — as a joint effort between the IOC and WMO. I foresee an even greater need for collaboration among atmospheric and oceanographic scientists in the years ahead as we come to realize just how important the oceans are to our understanding of longer-term fluctuations of weather and climate. Massive international field experiments will be required during the coming decade to study the upper layers of the ocean and interactions with the atmosphere. WMO and IOC will need to collaborate very closely to bring them about, much as during the past decade we successfully performed the field experiments of the Global Atmospheric Research Programme.
H.T — Can you tell us something about the USA/USSR Joint Commission for the Exploration of the World's Oceans? I understand that you were the United States' chairman of this Commission.
R.M.W. — As with meteorology, oceanography can represent an important bridge between nations, a field in which they can collaborate to advance their mutual interests. The Commission you refer to was established as a mechanism whereby oceanographers and others interested in marine sciences, both in the United States and in the Soviet Union, could join in exploring a number of important problems. This programme consisted of many different projects ranging from the study of the dynamics of eddies in the oceans (which are very similar to the disturbances in the motion of the atmosphere) to studies of the geology and geophysics of the sea-bed as well as research into biological productivity in the ocean. Many American scientists visited and worked aboard Soviet vessels and Soviet scientists likewise joined US vessels. It was common for the ships of both countries to collaborate together.
H.T. — You were also the USA's chairman on the co-operative programme in oceanography between the USA and France. What sort of work was undertaken here?
R.M.W. — This was a most exciting and pioneering effort. Although the overall joint programme consisted of many projects involving aquaculture and cleaning up the sea after oil spills, for me the most exciting was project FAMOUS, standing for French/ American Oceanographic Undersea Study. Manned submersibles of both countries joined in a project off the Azores to descend more than 3000 m to probe the geological and geophysical conditions of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — the undersea mountain range that extends almost from pole to pole down the Atlantic Oceans. It is here that the new ocean floor is being formed. The discoveries made during project FAMOUS brought important new information to bear on the nature of the geophysical activity in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
H.T. — You were a member of the Executive Committee of WMO for almost fifteen years, from 1964 to 1978. You have seen much of WMO's history in the making during the past two decades. What are your impressions of the changes you observed over this period?
R. M. W. — When you are involved in the day-to-day decisions of the Executive Committee, putting into effect the policies established by the World Meteorological Congresses, you are sometimes not fully aware of the change and progress that is going on. But now, after about three years of no longer being on the Executive Committee, I am struck by the many changes that have taken place. I was very fortunate to participate in the work of the Executive Committee at a time when it evolved from being primarily a group of directors of long-established national Meteorological Services to being a group which very broadly represented the newly-emerging and developing countries of the world as well. That was the most significant change in the character of the Executive Committee. From a technological and scientific point of view, I was again fortunate to be involved at the period when Earth-orbiting satellites became a key factor in observing global weather conditions and in bringing weather information to all the countries of the world. I could participate in the WMO's response to resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly calling upon the nations of the world to establish a World Weather Watch and to conduct a Global Atmospheric Research Programme. This was a really exciting time to be involved in the activities of the WMO. Although small by comparison with other international organizations, WMO succeeded in showing what could be done when nations of the world agree to pool their interests, talents and resources in a common objective. Another highly important achievement was the creation of a Voluntary Co-operation Programme (originally called the Voluntary Assistance Programme) in which the more fortunate nations of the world joined together to assist and co-operate with the developing nations, providing them with equipment and training to enhance the capabilities of their Meteorological Services. There is no doubt in my mind that through the WWW and GARP, the WMO attained the target that it had set for itself in bringing about a new world-wide system of weather observations and significant improvements in national Meteorological Services. Another very significant development during my term of office was the emergence of hydrology as a fully-fledged major activity of WMO, especially as regards the involvement of national Hydrological Services.
H.T. — I am surprised that you refer to WMO as a small organization when you have so often pointed out to me that the World Meteorological Organization commands resources and facilities around the world which are unparalleled by any other international organization.
R.M.W. — Quite so. The WMO is at the same time both a small and a very large organization. It has a small budget and a small secretariat compared with other international organizations. It is large in the sense that its governing body is composed of directors of the Meteorological Services, able to plan international efforts which draw upon the vast resources of its Member countries. In this sense the Global Telecommunication System and the Global Observing System and the system of Earth-orbiting meteorological satellites are testimony to the truly international character of meteorology, with various nations voluntarily coming together to pool their resources for the benefit of all.
H.T. — You were the chairman of the WMO World Climate Conference, a task which you performed with great ability. Were you satisfied with the results of the conference? Did the outcome justify the efforts devoted to its preparation?
R.M.W. — We are still almost too close to the World Climate Conference to make a true evaluation of its importance. In my view, however, it achieved the objectives that were set forth by the Executive Committee. It involved bringing together representatives from all over the world who were either experts in the multifarious facets of climatology or who were users of climatic information. The purpose of the conference was to assess the current status of our understanding of climate and its fluctuations and trends, to assess the effectiveness of the use of climatic information for various economic and social purposes, and to examine some of the economic and social impacts of climatic fluctuations upon diverse societies throughout the world. There is no question in my mind that these objectives were achieved. We had representatives from large nations and small, developing and highly developed. It was indeed remarkable that a consensus was reached on the present state of our knowledge of climate and the impact of climate on mankind. The Declaration of the World Climate Conference* was a remarkable document for the consensus on what needed to be done, and represented an excellent conceptual basis upon which the Eighth World Meteorological Congress shortly after was able to base its decision to launch the World Climate Programme. The proceedings represent a unique collection of papers written by the world's leading experts on different aspects of climate. This publication has become an important reference document on many aspects of climate.
H.T. — You have been involved in the development of practically all WMO's technical programmes — WWW, GARP, operational hydrology, WCP, meteorological applications, education and training as well as the technical assistance efforts. Do you think that these programmes encompass adequately the tasks that WMO was set up to perform?
R.M.W. — Yes, I do. There are probably others which you have not mentioned, but these are a representative sample of WMO's major efforts. All require a strong effort and international collaboration to ensure their success. I have become increasingly concerned that, in the fields of meteorological applications, education and training and technical co-operation, we may be missing a great opportunity for the WMO to really strengthen the Meteorological Services in those countries where at present they are not well developed. I believe that the knowledge and technology which now exists in many countries can very readily be made available to the developing nations, and this should be one of WMO's prime tasks in the years ahead. Of course, this should not be at the expense of extending the rapid and effective communication of weather data among all countries of the world or of providing a framework for international atmospheric science activities which are so fundamental to our understanding of the atmosphere and our ability to improve weather services. I feel that there are new opportunities — under the World Climate Applications Programme in particular — for making significant contributions to the economic progress of developing countries. The effective use of climatological information in planning water resource development for agricultural activities and for energy represents an inexpensive but very important way in which the science of meteorology can serve the developing nations.
H.T. — Considering present technological trends and our improved understanding of the science of meteorology, how do you visualize the future role of WMO?
R.M.W. — The traditional role of the WMO has been to co-ordinate meteorological activities in various countries. It was not established to be an operational agency. The Organization has been very effective in this kind of co-ordinating role, but the question which I am now asking myself is whether this role will be adequate in the years ahead, or whether the WMO will have to move more into management or operational activities. Many of the new technologies which have been developed — satellite technology is an excellent example — make the many dependent upon the few. This is just the opposite to the traditional situation in meteorology where the few were dependent upon the many. There is a real question as to how these sophisticated technologies will be operated in the future for the benefit of all nations. WMO has already taken some small steps in the area of the management of international meteorological activities. A good example is its acting as focal international agency for the maintenance of the North Atlantic Ocean Stations programme. Also, WMO has always been responsible for the planning and management of technical co-operation projects. I therefore see it as a major policy issue for the future as to how the WMO will evolve to function as an effective international agency, given these new facts of international life. In saying this I do not mean to minimize the traditional co-ordinating role of WMO which must remain as a central and important activity.
H.T. — Considering the importance now given to the problems of climate, how do you believe the programmes of WMO should be expanded to contribute effectively to the solution of these problems?
R.M.W. — As we look to the future and see the forces that impinge upon society (by these I mean the growth in world population and the need to increase agricultural productivity throughout the world, and the inexorable progression towards the depletion and exhaustion of petroleum deposits concurrent with the growing concern about the use of nuclear power and the need to build a bridge to renewable forms of energy) it is clear that Meteorological Services, and especially their climatic services, will play a vital role. The problems of climate span a spectrum from research activities to applications of climatic information. WMO has initiated the World Climate Programme to address all aspects of the problem in collaboration with UNEP and other specialized agencies of the United Nations. There is a desperate need for the talent, expertise and knowledge of scientists throughout the world to be brought to bear on these problems. For one reason, the carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere which results from burning fossil fuels may impose a serious limitation on our future use of fossil fuels, and the political and economic ramifications of any international actions which this may call for will require a solid consensus on the scientific facts and prospects. For another reason, if we are to feed the world's population, and if we are eventually to move towards renewable forms of energy, we shall be dealing with problems in which one of the controlling factors is climate. Certainly agricultural productivity will need to be increased threefold by the middle of the next century, and this can only come about if we have the know-how to assist governments in making the most effective use of their climatic resources to increase yields. As for renewable forms of energy, whether this be the direct use of solar energy or indirectly through wind power, whether it be ocean thermal energy conversion or the use of biomass, we are straightaway dealing with forms of energy that are very climate-sensitive, so here again our knowledge of climate will be essential for the most efficient harnessing of sources of renewable energy. WMO must do what it has started out to do, and the World Climate Programme must be a central focus of its endeavours, certainly in the decade ahead and perhaps for several decades.
H.T. — Given your many years of experience in international meteorology, which do you consider to be the most important areas where special efforts should be made to strengthen international co-operation and collaboration?
Lastly, the entire area of space technology presents opportunities for even more intensive international collaboration in the future, both in atmospheric and the other environmental sciences.
H.T. — Of the various positions you have held and capacities in which you have served, both at home and internationally, which has presented the greatest challenge?
R.M.W. — I find it hard to answer this question. My involvement in many international programmes of great importance has left me with a feeling that it is impossible to compare one with the other because they are so different. But certainly the challenge presented by the World Weather Watch and the Global Atmospheric Research Programme must rate as one of the greatest challenges faced by the international meteorological community and one to which the response has been a resounding success. The Global Weather Experiment was one of the most successful international projects ever conducted, reflecting much credit on WMO and ICSU and being a remarkable tribute to the drive and enthusiasm of all who participated in it. Bringing this off was enormously satisfying to me. But other fields have brought their own satisfaction also. I was gratified by the manner in which the Voluntary Co-operation Programme has developed into a systematic effort by the world meteorological community. This has been one of the most successful exercises in international cooperation of which I am aware. I have already mentioned how tremendously pleased I was by the development of new international management systems to protect whales.
H.T. — You have received many different awards for your varied activities. Which one do you value most?
R.M.W. — I have been very proud and pleased to be recognized by my colleagues for my contributions. I must confess to being deeply pleased by the award of the twenty-fifth IMO Prize. I have spent so many years of my career in international meteorology that it was most gratifying to me that my colleagues on the Executive Committee felt that my contributions were worthy of the highest award which the WMO can confer.
H.T. — In your new post as President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, what are some of the things which you hope to accomplish?
R.M.W. — I was asked to take on the presidency at a time when the member universities are examining the future course for this very important institution. For the first 20 years of its existence the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research had only one objective, namely the stewardship of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research. Now, because of the growing demands for knowledge about the atmosphere (for example, in connexion with problems of acid rain, contamination of the stratosphere by fluorocarbons or the effect of increasing carbon dioxide on the climate) it is clear that the universities can, and should, take a broad role in helping to find solutions to some of these problems, both domestically and internationally. We therefore envisage a broadening of the activities of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and a strengthening of the facilities and intellectual activities of NCAR as a means of bringing all the talents and expertise of the atmospheric sciences community of the United States to bear upon these critical societal problems.
H.T. — What advice have you for young people thinking of entering the profession of meteorology?
R.M.W. — I would certainly tell them that they are entering a most remarkable and exciting field. One with very good career opportunities and one which has not only national but international dimensions. I would advise them to concentrate as much as possible on their training in the basic sciences — mathematics, physics and chemistry — in order to acquire the tools and background with which they can deal with the increasingly complex problems of the atmosphere. I would advise them to make sure that their education includes major elements of engineering, because ours is a science and service which are vitally dependent upon engineering developments — upon computers and satellites and techniques of remote sensing — and a knowledge of engineering combined with science is essential to rapid progress. Above all, I would advise them to observe the world about them, observe the features of the atmosphere revealed in the sky — the clouds, rainbows and sunsets. I would tell them to enjoy their work and marvel in wonders of the natural system we call the atmosphere.