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Biden selects NOAA political team as decision on next agency head looms

The new ocean-focused senior staff will provide support for the eventual NOAA administrator

Satellite view of Hurricane Laura over the Gulf of Mexico in 2020. (NOAA/AP)

The Biden administration appointed a new political team to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Thursday, where they will help guide policies on the oceans and atmosphere. The staff members have a heavy focus on oceans policy, though the agency is also tasked with forecasting the weather and researching climate change.

The next leader for the agency, which is part of the Commerce Department and conducts much of the federal government’s climate change research, has yet to be announced.

Under Biden, NOAA’s profile is set to rise as climate change takes center stage

The new staff of political appointees, none of whom requires Senate confirmation, is headed up by Karen Hyun, a member of the agency’s Commerce Department review team, who will serve as chief of staff. Hyun was previously vice president for coastal conservation at the National Audubon Society and worked as a senior policy adviser at NOAA in the Obama administration.

She has an academic background in ocean ecosystems and earned in a PhD in marine affairs from the University of Rhode Island.

Other team members include:

  • Walker Smith, general counsel. Smith is an attorney who previously served as the director of the Office of Global Affairs and Policy at the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Letise LaFeir, senior policy adviser. LaFeir is a marine scientist who previously worked at the Resources Legacy Fund, a philanthropic nonprofit group that funds conversation efforts, as the director of federal policy. She had a brief stint at NOAA as a policy analyst for its Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and holds a PhD in marine biology from the University of Delaware.
  • Emily McAuliffe, special assistant to the NOAA administrator. McAuliffe is a policy analyst who has been working as a legislative assistant for the House Science Committee. She holds a public policy degree from Duke University.

Hyun and Smith’s appointments were confirmed in an email to NOAA managers that The Washington Post obtained. LaFeir was recently added to the NOAA personnel directory and updated her LinkedIn profile to indicate her new title.

Justin Kenney, who served as communications director at NOAA under President Barack Obama and worked with Hyun and LaFeir, said the pair are “committed to NOAA’s mission and value its people.”

“They respect the role science plays in shaping policy and delivering on NOAA’s many services for all Americans,” he wrote in a text message.

Additional slots, including the director of communications and director of legislative affairs, have not yet been filled.

To this point, the staff does not have significant experience in atmospheric sciences, including weather observing systems and forecasting. About one-third of the agency’s budget funds weather satellites, and another 20 percent covers the National Weather Service, responsible for forecasting.

The agency faces major challenges as it attempts to improve its computer modeling systems, whose accuracy trails counterparts in Europe and Canada, and launch a new generation of weather satellites while determining how to take advantage of the growing capabilities of privately held space companies.

The political staff appointments come as climate advocates await word on who will be selected to run the agency. While NOAA will play a role in the Biden administration’s climate policies, given the elevation of climate change to a top White House priority, so far, the rollout of the Biden climate, science and environment teams has left out NOAA as well as NASA.

This has not escaped the notice of oceans and climate advocates who are looking to see NOAA revitalized after a rocky four years under the Trump administration.

Under Trump, NOAA’s reputation was tarnished and staff morale suffered due to a scandal known as “Sharpiegate,” involving the former president’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian was going to strike Alabama, as well as the appointment of two climate science skeptics to senior positions in the waning days of the administration.

Trump officials reassigned by White House after publishing controversial climate papers without approval

Based on conversations with 10 people familiar with the situation, there are still a number of candidates in contention for top NOAA jobs, including the administrator, deputy administrator, chief scientist and the assistant secretary for environmental observation and prediction.

The names most frequently mentioned for NOAA administrator and other senior leadership positions are former NOAA official Monica Medina; Everette Joseph, who is the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research; Scripps Institution of Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen; Esri chief scientist Dawn Wright; and oceans scientist and former NOAA official Rick Spinrad.