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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/08/2008

Where Will Obama Lead NOAA?

Weather and oceans agency awaits new head

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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  |  11:00 AM ET, 12/08/2008

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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