To hear the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tell it, NOAA represents America's best bet for solving widespread problems including poor air quality and coping with an expanding global population.
"Almost everything you do, NOAA's connected to it," NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. said. "The ocean and the atmosphere, there's only one other piece and that's solid earth. Seventy percent of the world is ocean, and the atmosphere is 100 percent. We're talking about a significant piece that nurtures life on Earth."
Retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr.
Title: Undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere; administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Education: Bachelor's degree, U.S. Naval Academy (Class of 1964); doctorate and master's of science in applied mathematics, Harvard University.
Family: Married; two children, four grandchildren.
Career highlights: Founded a management consulting business; chief executive, Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education; retired from the Navy after 40 years; commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command Riyadh, during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm; commander, U.S. Third Fleet; deputy chief of naval operations, in charge of Navy programs and budget.
Hobbies: Banjo playing, woodworking, plumbing.
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Lautenbacher, a retired three-star admiral, is working to transform a 12,500-person agency that has sometimes struggled to get attention into one of the administration's key research branches. From assessing climate change to providing transportation-related weather forecasts, Lautenbacher is trying to position NOAA as an information center for U.S. and international officials.
"I will take all the heat in the world about getting the best science, looking for the truth and getting it to policymakers," he said in a recent interview.
Outside observers and administration officials say Lautenbacher, who took over NOAA in December 2001, has already achieved what is likely to be considered his legacy, bringing together 51 nations to establish a more sophisticated monitoring system for the land, sea and air. The proposed Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a network of thousands of weather stations, buoys, ships and aircraft, will take the globe's pulse and transmit the information 24 hours a day. If it goes as planned, the system could transform the way farmers plant their crops and shippers plot their courses.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt, who has worked with Lautenbacher on the effort, describes it as "Nobel Prize-winning work."
The system will "change the way we live, change the health of millions, tens of millions," Leavitt said. Lautenbacher, he said, is one of those people who "through the strength of their personality just keeps the process moving."
The United States rolled out its draft plan this summer. By mid-February, the project's international coalition will announce a 10-year plan to accomplish its mission.
A self-described "tsunami aficionado" with a doctorate in applied mathematics, Lautenbacher is a mix of scientist, naval officer and management guru. He speaks of creating a "corporate organization" at NOAA and makes his staff read the book "Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done." He also embraces "ecosystem management," an approach to managing oceans favored by both environmentalists and scientists.
"I like to think big," he said. "That sounds self-promoting. I think about focused objectives and outcomes in large-scale operations."
He is also a skilled banjo player who appeared on ABC's "Hootenanny" while at the Naval Academy and a furniture maker who rebuilt a deteriorating garage on the grounds of the Naval Observatory several years ago with the aid of a few friends. Although he is hardly a flower child, Lautenbacher learned early on to appreciate nature. He took the train with his parents from their Philadelphia home to hike several miles outside the city.
"I lived in the concrete jungle, and on weekends my family would escape," Lautenbacher said. "My parents today would clearly be considered environmentalists."
In many ways, Lautenbacher functions as an administration emissary on ocean and atmospheric issues. He persuaded French officials to support the global system proposal when the United States was launching its invasion of Iraq and did the same with Sudan even as the United States was scrutinizing that country's human rights record. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, he spoke late at night to several hundred people to make a pitch for the international monitoring plan.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was Lautenbacher's boss on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his former aide is "not a screamer, not a shouter. He's just a persuasive person." Lautenbacher uses his analytic skills "in getting to the right answer, and then he persuades others of that right answer," Powell said.