On Friday, December 5, 2008, Northrop Grumman Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ronald Sugar delivered keynote remarks at a symposium on climate change, security, and earth observations. This event was hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Below are his delivered remarks.

From Climate Data to Knowledge: Informing Our Future Decisions

What a terrific turnout this morning. I’m honored to be your kick-off speaker – and particularly so since I’m not the kind of speaker you might have expected for this topic.

This is a good time to hold an event like this – between the recent election frenzy and the coming inauguration. It’s a good time because the issues we’ll discuss today need to be addressed by the new Administration and by Congress. In Poznan, Poland, the international community has come together to continue its progress toward a new pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Here in the U.S., we’re grateful to CSIS, and to Dr. Hamre, for keeping the profile of this issue high and relevant. Today’s program will continue that momentum.

In President-elect Obama’s remarks to a climate change conference of Governors in Los Angeles last month, he underlined what we all know: The climate is changing and those changes will have enormous impacts on our world, on our economies, and our collective security. Hence my company’s deep interest in this matter.

We all know the consequences of doing nothing to prepare for these coming changes. But this morning I would like to offer some hopeful news associated with climate change. For the next few minutes, I’d like to talk about a core of technical capabilities and expertise that has been developed over many years by the folks in the national security industry – capabilities that could be leveraged and applied to the challenges of climate change. I would also like to touch on the opportunities and societal benefits of doing so, which could be immense. But to realize those benefits, we will have to build something that currently does not exist. We will have to build a bridge between the mass of abundant scientific data on one hand, and our ability to translate that data into practical, decision-quality knowledge on the other. Let me explain what I mean by means of an example.

Ship captains of centuries past spent their lives learning to navigate their local waters. Over years of trial and error, the best of them learned where to find the most favorable winds, where to avoid contrary currents, and other data that made the difference between safety and disaster and between profit and loss. Because they, and their nations, hoarded their hard-won information like treasure, few felt knowledgeable enough to venture out of familiar waters. For most of them, ocean navigation was more an oral tradition than scientific method. And the data points they sought comprised the sum total of understanding they thought available. Everything else, they believed, was unpredictable, and randomness was the natural order of the seas.

But there was order in that randomness. Unbeknownst to them, useful information about wind directions and storm patterns was predictable years in advance, even in waters they had never sailed. They knew that the limited information they spent their careers seeking would be useful. But it was the information they were unaware of that would have introduced them to a new world of navigational solutions, capabilities and unimagined opportunities.

I submit to you that it is possible we are in a similar state of understanding about climate change.

We now record a tremendous amount of Earth-monitoring data; from satellites; from sensors on aircraft and balloons; and from sensors deep in the oceans or buried underground. These sensors are found all over the globe. They might belong to any number of nations and their voluminous data is analyzed by many international scientific institutions.

NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, universities, and others, have been performing an incredible service to the progress of climate science by collecting and analyzing this data. And the sensors they operate must be maintained and expanded. The environmental data they have been producing is largely the reason we can even foresee the next evolution of climate understanding – an evolution that must occur if our efforts to create practical mitigation and adaptation options are to be anything more than an aspiration.

With a few worthy exceptions, that evolution has not yet happened. Why not? I believe it is because we still suffer from an excess of data and a deficit of knowledge.

Currently, too much of the data generated by these many sensors are segregated from each other, as are too many of the world’s institutions that operate them. And that’s not all. For understandable reasons, these data are highly scientific in nature. They are used to feed the many climate models that are so indispensible to the progress of climate science. But these models are complex and are the province of scientific and academic communities. For the most part, they produce exactly what they were designed to – illustrations of the climate on a global scale and to a generalized timeline. In addition, these models are in their infancy relative to what is yet to come, and relative to what is needed for practical uses. All in all, the ocean of sensor data makes for good science, but its benefits outside that realm remain limited.

But what if all that raw environmental data could be turned into practical decision-quality knowledge for use by the greater society?

What if the products from all those many sensors and information sources could be integrated and consolidated to provide the next evolution of our climate understanding? – A level of understanding that could open up a new world of benefits and opportunities that we might not now even imagine? And what if that new understanding of our climate were networked beyond the scientific community to help inform public policy and business decisions at a regional or even local level?

This is currently being done on a macro level with NOAA’s Global Earth Observing Systems of Systems, or GEOSS. GEOSS will eventually integrate the world’s Earth observing systems on a global basis and make Earth information universally available for the benefit of society. We are fortunate indeed to have with us this morning Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher. Connie is the man who, more than any other, deserves the credit for GEOSS. He has been a true visionary in his understanding of the power of integration and knowledge management and he will be speaking later this morning.

I do not advocate duplicating the work of GEOSS, or any other agency or office in the area of data integration. Nor do I contend that the private sector could do it better on its own. I simply contend that it may well be time to take the next step – to create a higher-level structural mechanism under government leadership, which builds on our scientific successes to date.

What I am calling for is for the new Administration to undertake a national initiative to leverage those investments to provide broad access to decision-quality climate knowledge. This is a really hard problem, but the pay-off will be enormous making the effort worthy of a national initiative.

And finally, I believe many of the tools and techniques required to do this have already been developed by the defense and information technology industries.

Here is the task that calls to us – to tame an ocean of data for practical uses. And here is quite possibly the best opportunity for our nation, and for the next Administration to demonstrate global leadership on the issue of climate change.

There are any number of ways this vision might manifest itself. One way could be through the establishment of what might be called Regional Decision Support Centers. Think of these as the information portals – broadly accessible to national, regional, local and private decision makers. One could foresee such centers being staffed with their own analysts and experts, and equipped with their own high-powered computer infrastructure. The professional staffs, the operational processes, and even the broadband networks of these centers could be closely interfaced with other federal agencies, state, local, as well as international and public institutions. In this way, these centers could access GEOSS and other data, and integrate it into useable information relevant to a specific problem or decision in a specific region.

As I said earlier, I believe many of the tools and technologies already exist to attack this problem. They have been developed for national security applications. Let me explain.

The astonishing pace of data-gathering technology was initially a double edged sword for our military commanders – offering unprecedented situational awareness of the battle space on one hand, but severe information overload on the other. Commanders who needed to forward specific information relevant to a unit as small as an infantry squad or a pair of attack jets were required to “sip water from a fire hose,” as they put it. They had to be able to pull out that tiny thread of relevant information from a mountain of data – and quickly. What they needed was the ability to access and integrate their data, make sense of it, and share it on a network among their forces. The solution was a combination of computing power and expertise that allowed the different categories of intelligence – imagery, communications intercepts, and others – to be combined and correlated into a massive body of data. The breakthrough was the ability of the commander to tailor his information search by time and map coordinates. All the while, other commanders in other places were able to do the same thing at the same time for their specific needs. This problem has been a tough nut to crack and the technologies designed to do it continue to progress and improve. Today, while not perfect, no one does this better than America’s military.

This quest for the next evolution of climate understanding – and for the practical benefits of achieving it – might induce objections to both its expense and its expanse. First, the establishment and operational costs of these Regional Decision Support Centers might cost several hundred million dollars per year. But remember: knowledge, like interest, compounds. Once acquired, knowledge gives an infinite and unforeseen return for the investment. And when government and the private sector join in a common effort – each doing what it does best – then a true knowledge base takes root and the benefits can be astronomical even if they are frequently unforeseen. Placed against that potential, the initial establishment costs would amount to pennies on the dollar.

To illustrate this point, let me close with a characteristically American tale of vision, innovation, and resulting dividends.

In 1842, an obscure U.S. Navy Lieutenant named Matthew Fontaine Maury was placed in charge of the collection of ship’s logs dating back to the birth of our Navy. Regulations required that the log of every U.S. Navy ship be sent to Maury’s depot after each voyage. Within each log were recorded daily measurements of position, wind velocity and direction, ocean temperature, and the speed and direction of ocean currents. These dusty, neglected logs would change the world’s understanding of its oceans for Maury saw in them a way to turn data into shared knowledge and in the process, to evolve the understanding of our oceans to a higher level.

Maury assigned himself the enormous task of integrating all their data into a new type of chart – a chart that predicted wind direction and ocean conditions for any time of year. He also managed to globalize his data-gathering through a set of international recording and reporting standards. Thenceforth, each of an enormous number of ships from many countries sailing in every ocean became, quote, “a temple of science,” unquote.

Maury’s new charts were revolutionary. They allowed ship captains to shave weeks and months from their voyages and helped transform ocean navigation from art to science. Here was a new level of understanding that seafarers did not even know was there. As one grateful captain wrote him, quote, “Until I took up your charts, I had been traversing the oceans blindfolded,” unquote.

In turning data into shared knowledge, Maury invented the discipline of oceanography and the practical implications were immense. Safer and more efficient sea travel was now available to any captain anywhere in the world who chose to use the new charts. The expenses of ocean commerce – from shipping costs and insurance to the prices of seaborne products and commodities – were all reduced and the nation’s economy benefited accordingly.

Innovation in the service of society is as American a tradition as democracy itself. So too, are the benefits that so often spring from the public-private partnership. Lieutenant Maury taught the shipping industry how to work with the oceans. Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Program transformed the American South and scores of regional economies blossomed. Kennedy gave us Apollo and, by extension, all the technologies and advances that spun from it. And recently the Human Genome Project…inspired by a significant government investment…has born astonishing fruit.

Last month, our President-elect made clear his intentions to act. And if our nation’s leadership inspires American innovation, it may now be within our power to ensure that our responses to the coming climate changes are not merely reactive, but are proactive. The climate changes that crest the horizon may be beyond our immediate control. How we choose to meet them is not.