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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/ 8/2008

Where Will Obama Lead NOAA?

By Andrew Freedman

Weather and oceans agency awaits new head

* Late-Week Storm? Full Forecast *

Given the incoming Obama administration's emphasis on tackling global climate change and restoring scientific integrity in policymaking, federal science agencies that had taken a back seat under President Bush, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are likely to become more prominently involved in the decision making process in the near future. Similar to the EPA and Interior Department, NOAA sits at the intersection of science and policy when it comes to numerous environmental issues -- particularly climate change and oceans management.

Following a turbulent eight years under President Bush, which featured allegations of political interference (PDF) with NOAA scientific research, as well as cost overruns on a major environmental satellite program, the next few years are slated to be a rebuilding phase for NOAA; similar to a sports franchise that has hit a rough patch and needs an infusion of new talent and a morale boost. The question is whether the agency will come out a winner next season, or if it will struggle under new management. Much of that depends on who is selected to run the agency.

Keep reading for more analysis and commentary on NOAA in the Obama Administration...

However, the press has been paying scant attention to the matter of who may be chosen to be the next NOAA administrator. That's understandable, since heading up the agency is not the most glamorous A-list job in Washington. The position doesn't come with a security detail and a black SUV, but there are free rides available aboard hurricane hunter aircraft named "Kermit the Frog" and "Miss Piggy."

In a telephone interview on Friday, former NOAA Administrator D. James Baker, who led the agency for eight years under President Clinton, said NOAA is growing in importance due to the increasingly serious nature of environmental problems such as climate change.

"NOAA is the agency that monitors the pulse of the Earth and that told us that we are in danger because of climate change," Baker said. According to him, the ideal candidate for administrator must possess a combination of scientific and political acumen, which is relatively rare. For example, both he and Conrad Lautenbacher, the most recent NOAA administrator who recently left that position, had backgrounds in oceanography among other scientific fields, as well as Washington experience.

Baker said climate change should top the list of concerns for the next administrator, followed by the poor health of the oceans. In addition, NOAA may grapple with a reorganization of the federal government's climate and Earth observation programs.

Baker praised the recent nomination of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as the next Commerce secretary, saying his long history in Washington will serve him and NOAA well. "He knows these agencies, he knows the political scene... I think he's going to be very open to helping NOAA," Baker said.

Baker, who is currently directing a climate change project with the Clinton Foundation, mentioned several individuals that would be ideally suited for the NOAA job, including Leon Panetta, who is a former Democratic congressman from California and chief of staff to former President Clinton. Hailing from coastal California, Panetta has been a longtime oceans advocate, and chaired the Pew Oceans Commission.

Other potential candidates Baker mentioned include:

  • Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
  • Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Marsha McNutt, CEO, Monterey Aquarium Research Institute
  • Jane Lubchenco, marine biologist and zoologist at Oregon State University
  • Rosina Bierbaum, Dean of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and co-director of a forthcoming World Bank report on climate change and development
  • Warren Washington, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research
  • Michael S. Bruno, dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering

Other names floating around include Richard Anthes, the director of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and Eileen Shea, currently the director of a NOAA center in Hawaii.

One of the thorniest issues facing NOAA in the near future is how to restore the morale of the agency's scientific staff, following a series of high-profile incidents of politically motivated scientific censorship during the Bush administration. This squelching of research findings stood in stark contrast to practices during Baker's tenure, which featured regular weekly lunches between him and Vice President Gore to discuss climate science.

"There's definitely a very strong sense within NOAA now that they were muzzled and they couldn't say what they wanted to say," Baker said of NOAA's scientific staff, adding that the next NOAA administrator needs to clearly state a commitment to free expression.

"You don't want to have any sense that there is an administration line on what the science is," he said. "That's really dangerous, it can cut both ways."

Rick Piltz, director of the nonprofit group Climate Science Watch, said in an email conversation, "I think we can expect to see a much-improved situation with climate change communication now that we will have an administration that is not intent on avoiding the problem. But in undoing the damage, they need to get the agency really actively engaged with society in dealing with the impacts of climate change."

By Andrew Freedman  | December 8, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Government, News & Notes  
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Bush wanted to privatize the Weather Bureau. Seriously. You were supposed to subscribe to the privately run For-Profit Weather Bureau so you could learn whether it was expected to rain or not. There could be multiple For-Profit Weather Bureaus, each with a different forecast. You could pay more to get forecasts that you liked better.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | December 8, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Yes, let's put good scientists and administrators on this now! More work and more research will help just like the satellites and actual people help millions on this earth. More money here will not only save lives but hopefully will prevent more disasters around the world.

Posted by: jrubin1 | December 8, 2008 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Dr. D. "Jimmie--but you can call me James" Baker served as Clinton's NOAA head and wants a job as climate czar in the Obama Administration. Baker fired Dr. Joe Friday, former head of the NWS. Some of us cannot forgive him for that. Baker hated the NWS.

Rick Piltz was a Democratic appointee who the Bushies kept on in the Climate Change Science Program Office who tried to undermine everything they did--a typical career lefty bureaucrat.

And bluetwo1: get a clue. Bush never tried to privitize the NWS.

Posted by: Postde-subscriber | December 8, 2008 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully, Obama will help NOAA restore its scientific credibility by appointing managers who will not be pushed around by the religious climate change zealots on the staff.

Posted by: HughJassPhD | December 8, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

In addition, Obama should ensure that NOAA starts to improve its hiring practices.

It's obvious to an educated reader of climate science literature that very few of the authors know a thing about stochastic processes or confirmatory data analysis. This is especially true of the work of NOAA's scientists.

In other words, it seems that most "climate scientists" are just a bunch of weathermen with poor math skills.

Posted by: HughJassPhD | December 8, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

HughJassPhD wrote, "In other words, it seems that most "climate scientists" are just a bunch of weathermen with poor math skills."

I can't speak about their math skills, but it would definitely appear that they have very poor data documentation skills.

There is no catastrophic man made global warming. None.

As far as "restoring scientific integrity in policymaking", I don't see how that can or will happen. It, both the issue and the agency, NOAA, has turned political. Once something turns political does it ever turn back? I suppose maybe after a generation or two, but not before then. Definitely not in the next 8 years. That is a pipe dream.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | December 8, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I was surprised, yet elated to see the name of Eileen Shea raised in the context of the new NOAA leadership. She has proven qualities as a forward-thinking climate scientist and career NOAA employee with the talent and experience in dealing with all of NOAA's assets on the "dry" as well as "wet" side of its broad agenda. The agency certainly would not be getting a recast political hack with her selection as the new Administrator.

Posted by: p_h50 | December 9, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

In an interview today, the Bush administration's longtime NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher had two names to add to this list: Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), who lost his bid for Sen. Susan Collins' seat and was active in the House Oceans Caucus, as well as Richard Spinrad, who is currently NOAA's assistant administrator in the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. Lautenbacher said there are many other qualified candidates both in and out of NOAA.

Lautenbacher also noted his record of supporting free speech and open science at NOAA. "I have been a strong supporter and made many strong statements on open science," he said.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | December 9, 2008 11:56 AM | Report abuse

NOAA is the MOST disorganized federal environmental agency of them all, and that is saying a lot given the complete clusterf--- that we have set up for environmental protection in this country. Who cares who leads NOAA, that is not the problem. Do something useful Obama, delete NOAA from the org. chart. In fact, delete all of the other environmental agencies too. Create one new Ecosystem Service Protection Agency that is organized based on ecological zones. Why do we need 10 different agencies stumbling over each other to protect our vital ecosystem services? Why?! We are wasting OUR money by keeping these legacy agencies alive. Consolidate them and save us a heap of money. Come on, we can do a better job of protecting our environment by getting rid of this hodge podge. Doing this is part of our national defense! Environmental integrity and food security are more important than blazing guns. Let's finally get this environmental protection thing done right. Please consolidate all of our environmental agencies into a single organization that we can all rally around. Please!

Posted by: DealerBoy | December 9, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freeman.....why do you say that NOAA has been "political" and that "scientific integrity" is being restored to the organization only now? That comment seems way off-base. The truth is that NOAA has remained aloof from politics in the so-called "climate-warming" debate and simply stuck to facts....proven facts. To expect NOAA to be the voice of Al Gore is not only unrealistic but absurd.......NOAA, for the most part, is a group of scientists, not politicians.

That is one of the reasons I have such a high opinion of the has stuck to facts, not hype or politics. That is one of the reasons why the head of the National Hurricane Center had to be relieved some time ago...he had forgotten his job, wich was sticking to facts and not trying to be a politician.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | December 9, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

the person who is asked to become the noaa administrator, whomever it is [and i expect the list of potential candidates is a lot longer than that presented here] MUST have a DEMONSTRATED awareness not just of a scientific discipline or two [atmosphere or ocean] but must also have a DEMONSTRATED record of awareness and sensitivity in dealing with people in the general public as well as in academic research disciplines in the social sciences (a true awareness and concern about how climate-society-environment interact) and in the humanities (ethics and equity issues). the environment is in trouble. noaa needs someone with vision.

Posted by: mickeyglantz | December 9, 2008 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Hey Freedman. Last week your own paper published that NOAA did not muzzle anyone during the Bush Administration:

It exonerates NOAA from muzzling. Better call Baker and Piltz to get a quote.

Posted by: Postde-subscriber | December 15, 2008 1:19 PM | Report abuse

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