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Barry Myers, AccuWeather chief executive, emerges as front-runner for NOAA’s top job

AccuWeather chief executive Barry Myers testifies at a House Science Committee Hearing on June 8, 2016. (House Science Committee)
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Nearly four months into his administration, President Trump has yet to name the next leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But several individuals in the weather community say Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather in State College, Pa., is the leading candidate.

Myers, who holds business and law degrees, has served as AccuWeather’s chief executive since September 2007 and has overseen the company’s strategic initiatives and global expansion. His strong business background is viewed as a major asset for an administration that has placed a great deal of value on private-sector experience.

The job of NOAA administrator is seen as a critical for advancing the nation’s weather forecasts and understanding climate change. The agency runs the National Weather Service, conducts and funds weather and climate research, and operates a constellation of weather satellites as well as a climate data center.

NOAA also has enormous responsibilities in understanding and protecting the nation’s coasts, oceans and fisheries.

Members of the weather and climate community, aware of Myers’s likely selection, said they think that he would bring strong corporate leadership to the position. But others were worried about his nontechnical background and a rocky relationship with the National Weather Service.

“I think Barry would bring very practical, pragmatic expertise and management acumen to NOAA,” said David Titley, professor of meteorology at Penn State who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer in the Obama administration.

Rich Sorkin, chief executive for Jupiter, a start-up focused on risk from weather and climate, called Myers an “exceptional” candidate given his private-sector orientation. He said he thinks that Myers, given his deep involvement in the “broader weather ecosystem,” would strive to help the agency’s weather modeling catch up with the European system, which it has fallen behind.

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However, several leaders from the weather industry expressed concerns about Myers’s lack of science background and questioned his knowledge of core NOAA issues besides weather.

“He is very strong in weather forecasting, but NOAA is much broader than that,” said Elizabeth Weatherhead, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Colorado.

Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists called Myers’s lack of scientific credentials “concerning,” noting that the last several NOAA administrators had science backgrounds.

“Making sure overall NOAA’s mission is valued, especially its scientific work, is absolutely crucial,” he said.

But Myers has the backing of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of academic institutions, focused on scientific research. Its president, Antonio Busalacchi, stressed the weather enterprise’s private sector has experienced massive growth and that Myers’s background would be a positive in forming partnerships. “I think he’ll bring a perspective that’s right for the nation,” Busalacchi said. “Like any new administrator, there will be a steep learning curve on the whole of the organization.”

Myers’s potential appointment is opposed by the labor union for the National Weather Service, the NWS Employees Organization. Myers and AccuWeather have, at times, butted heads with the Weather Service, opposing certain initiatives that they claimed were unfairly competing with the private sector.

Richard Hirn, a spokesperson for the union, called Myers “wholly unqualified” for the position. In 2005, Myers and his brother Joel, founder of AccuWeather, gave money to then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who introduced legislation aimed at curtailing government competition with private weather services. The legislation didn’t receive a single co-sponsor, Hirn said.

“If Myers is confirmed, he will be able to order the NWS to do what Congress was unwilling to do — which is to turn the Weather Service into a taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy of AccuWeather,” Hirn said.

Penn State’s Titley said he expected Myers’s family business and the potential for conflict of interest as NOAA chief to come up in any confirmation hearing. And he said the Senate would probably “probe” Myers’s prior comments pertaining to the role of the Weather Service in relationship to the private sector, if he ends up being the nominee.

For his part, Myers has said he fully supports the mission of the Weather Service and has won an award for his efforts to strengthen the private-public-sector partnership.

Should Myers be Trump’s choice, he has supporters on Capitol Hill, and appears to be in good standing with the House Science Committee.

“We have a good relationship with Barry Myers,” said Kristin Baum, the committee’s communications director. “The chairman will certainly be supportive of whoever the administration nominates.”

The administration’s timetable for naming the NOAA administrator is still unknown. The Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, when contacted about Myers’s candidacy Monday morning, had no comment.

Climate Central pointed out in early April that Trump was behind former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in naming a NOAA administrator.

Several industry officials said Myers’s appointment is not a done deal, and other candidates remain possibilities.

Scott Rayder, who served as chief of staff for former NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher in the administration of President George W. Bush, has seen his stock fall. The status of Jon White, president and chief executive of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, also considered a candidate, is uncertain.

Other names mentioned as potential candidates include Tim Gallaudet, oceanographer of the Navy; Kelvin Droegemeier, professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma; and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.). Gallaudet may also be a candidate for deputy NOAA administrator, according to two individuals.

Myers did not respond to a request for comment on his candidacy.