(This story has been updated.)
Barry Myers, the chief executive of the private weather forecasting company AccuWeather, is President Trump’s pick to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The appointment of Myers, a businessman and lawyer, breaks from the recent precedent of scientists leading the agency tasked with a large, complex and technically demanding portfolio. Every past NOAA administrator but one, attorney Richard Frank who served from 1977-1981, held science degrees.
The agency oversees 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. It also has critical responsibilities in monitoring and protecting the nation’s coasts, oceans and fisheries.
Myers’s supporters say he brings valuable experience from the private sector that will help NOAA advance its capabilities.
“[I]n an Administration that places high value on business acumen, Barry brings a strong track record in growing one of the most successful companies in the weather industry,” said Ray Ban, co-chair of the Weather Coalition, an advocacy group for strengthening America’s weather industry across sectors.
Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA administrator under George W. Bush, said Myers is an “ideal fit” for the position. “Barry brings with him an outstanding record as a leader and manager as well as many years of experience in all aspects of meteorology,” he said.
But others are concerned about his potential conflicts of interest and lack of science background.
As NOAA administrator, Myers would be in charge of the Weather Service whose data are heavily used by his family business, based in State College, Pa.
AccuWeather has, in the past, supported measures to limit the extent to which the Weather Service can release information to the public, so that private companies could generate their own value-added products using this same information. In 2005, for example, Myers and his brother Joel gave money to then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who introduced legislation aimed at curtailing government competition with private weather services.
“Barry Myers defines ‘conflict of interest,'” said Ciaran Clayton, who was communications director at NOAA in the Obama administration. “He actively lobbied to privatize the National Weather Service, which works day in and day out to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans, to benefit his own company’s bottom line.”
Myers’s appointment is strongly opposed by the labor union for the National Weather Service, the NWS Employees Organization, for this same reason. “As NOAA administrator, he would be in a position to fundamentally alter the nature of weather services that NOAA provides the nation, to the benefit of his family-owned business,” said Richard Hirn, a spokesperson for the union.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called Myers a “questionable choice” to lead NOAA. “Mr. Myers will have to work very hard to persuade me that he will run NOAA for the public good,” Schatz said. “[H]e will also need to explain why his service as NOAA Administrator will not violate conflict of interest rules and regulations.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) expressed a similar sentiment. “We can’t afford to have someone in this position that might be tempted to feather their own nest by privatizing the National Weather Service,” he said.
In January, when he was first rumored to be a candidate for administrator, Myers expressed strong support for the Weather Service and its mission. He has a long history of working with the Weather Service, having advised five directors, according to his biography, and won an award from the American Meteorological Society for “fostering strong cooperation between private sector and government weather services” in 2014.
His supporters believe he will be able to apply his business savvy to help NOAA better leverage assets in the commercial sector.
“Myers will bring that Big Data acumen to NOAA and likely accelerate a process that has slowly been underway: more private-sector collaboration with satellite data, weather models and other information services,” said Ryan Maue, a weather model product developer for Weather.us, in an interview with the Associated Press.
Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist in the Obama administration, expressed some reservations about Myers’s lack of science background but said his business background “could serve him well” since NOAA is housed in the Department of Commerce. Spinrad said Myers can position himself to succeed if he is able “to bolster his leadership team with scientifically competent, and technically experienced experts.”
While very familiar with challenges facing the weather industry, Myers lack of experience managing ocean issues has emerged as a particular concern. “If confirmed, it will be [Myers’] duty to champion all facets of NOAA from the deep sea to outer space. Myers has had nearly forty years in the private weather industry but the stakes at NOAA are different,” said Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy.
Perhaps allaying such concerns, some scientific leadership is already in place to help Myers navigate challenging oceanic and atmospheric issues. In recent weeks, Trump announced selections for two deputies to support the NOAA administrator: former Navy oceanographer Rear. Adm. Timothy Gallaudet and Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corporation.
Gallaudet’s confirmation sailed through the Senate and reactions to his appointment have been glowing, including from officials of the previous administration.
“[Gallaudet] has a proven track record of outstanding service, and is a terrific nominee,” said Jane Lubchenco, who headed NOAA during President Barack Obama’s first term, in an email.
News releases from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of academic institutions, focused on scientific research, also lauded Gallaudet’s expertise and record of service.
“Mr. Myers’ knowledge of the weather and climate enterprise will be complemented by Admiral Gallaudet’s extensive scientific and operational expertise in oceanography and meteorology,” said Rear. Adm. (Ret.) Jonathan White, president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.
Jacobs, the second deputy, is best known for developing a weather forecast model at Panasonic that has, at times, outperformed the National Weather Service’s main model.
Jacobs could help Myers in improving NOAA’s weather forecast modeling, integrating private sector knowledge and methods.
“From my years of working with Barry, I know he appreciates the importance of re-establishing U.S. preeminence in weather prediction,” said Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Busalacchi has supported Myers ever since he emerged as the front-runner for the NOAA job in May.
Even with the prospect of Myers advancing NOAA’s technology, some are still uncomfortable with a businessman running an agency whose mission is public service-focused.
“The tendency to place corporate leaders in charge of public agencies is ill-advised because the measure of success do not translate well from private organizations to public institutions,” said Susan Jasko, an expert in communication theory specializing in weather at California University of Pennsylvania.
Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists and former NOAA scientist wrote in a blog post: “Some say that bringing a business approach to government is essential. I am not one of them.”
Lubchenco put the task in front of Myers this way: “The new NOAA administrator must be a strong champion for and steward of all of NOAA — its integrated mission of science, services, and stewardship. This means nurturing its research, climate, weather, ships and planes, satellites, ocean and coasts, fisheries, sanctuaries, trust resources, and other units. If some of these units wither, the ability of the others to function well is compromised. Strong science underpins both the service and the stewardship functions.”
One of the big unknowns about Myers is his position on climate change. He has made no known public statements on the politically charged issue.
AccuWeather’s stated position on climate change, while not inconsistent with existing scientific assessments, is vague. “Global climate change is a matter of intense concern and public importance,” it begins. “There can be little doubt that human beings influence the world’s climate. At the same time, our knowledge of the extent, progress, mechanisms and results of global climate change is still incomplete.”
Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, said he is willing to give Myers “the benefit of the doubt” if he is “a stronger leader on climate change and an advocate for the National Weather Service.”
The jury is out.