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Rick Spinrad confirmed by Senate as new head of NOAA

GOES-17 GeoColor view of the Northern Hemisphere, Feb. 9, 2019. (NOAA)

June 17 update

The Senate confirmed Rick Spinrad as the next leader of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday. Spinrad, an ocean scientist nominated by President Biden to lead NOAA on April 22, becomes the 11th administrator in the agency’s history.

“I am thrilled to be back and am ready to hit the ground running,” Spinrad said in a NOAA news release. “I am humbled to lead NOAA’s exceptional workforce on a mission so relevant to the daily lives of people across America and to the future health of our planet. And I will ensure that trust and scientific integrity will continue to be the foundation for all of our work.”

The NOAA release lists Spinrad’s top three priorities as he takes the helm: developing products and services to support climate change work inside the agency and with its federal and nonfederal partners; building programs and policies that enhance environmental sustainability and foster economic development; and creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Spinrad becomes the agency’s first Senate-confirmed administrator since Kathryn Sullivan, who served under President Barack Obama into 2017.

Original story from April 22

President Biden has picked Rick Spinrad, an oceanographer with decades of science and policy experience, to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government’s leading agency for weather, climate and ocean science.

The White House announced Spinrad’s selection along with several additional climate and environmental nominees, including Tracy Stone-Manning, a senior adviser for the National Wildlife Federation tapped to lead the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.

Spinrad, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, served as chief scientist at NOAA under President Barack Obama and before that led the agency’s research arm and ocean service. He has also held ocean leadership positions in the Navy.

Named on Earth Day to lead the agency, Spinrad has been a champion of funding research to advance the understanding of climate change, a top priority of the Biden White House.

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Spinrad continues the long-standing tradition of scientists selected to run the agency, which has responsibilities stretching from the sea floor to low Earth orbit. Every past NOAA administrator but one — attorney Richard Frank, who served from 1977 to 1981 — has held science degrees.

President Donald Trump nominated a nonscientist, Barry Myers, to run the agency, but the businessman and lawyer was never granted a vote in the Senate and later withdrew for health reasons.

Trump then nominated Neil Jacobs, an atmospheric scientist, but he also never received a Senate vote and led the agency only in an acting capacity.

Spinrad will need to accomplish what Myers and Jacobs could not — clearing the Senate — if NOAA is to have its first permanent leader in more than four years.

The challenges he’ll face

The agency, whose budget has stagnated for the past decade, has a diverse, complex and demanding portfolio. It 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 responsibilities in monitoring and protecting the nation’s coasts, oceans and fisheries.

Leading an organization the size of NOAA, with about 11,000 employees, will be a first for Spinrad, as will be overseeing a budget of around $5 billion, which may swell to $6.9 billion if Biden’s request to increase spending is approved by Congress.

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If confirmed, Spinrad will face numerous challenges that include improving the agency’s flagship weather prediction system, which lags behind its counterparts in Europe, launching a new generation of weather satellites, and upgrading the National Weather Service’s aging and declining information technology infrastructure.

His work also probably will involve addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, marine litter and ocean plastics, the health of corals, and keeping fisheries sustainable, while advancing the nation’s “blue economy” of goods and services the oceans provide to coastal communities.

The agency is expected to face scrutiny over its lack of gender and racial diversity, particularly with Spinrad, who is a White man, at the helm. A report from the House Science Committee published in March found that NOAA employed almost three male scientists for every woman in 2020. African Americans are deeply underrepresented. Just under 4 percent of the agency’s scientists are Black, and 1.3 percent are Black women.

Jonathan White, former oceanographer of the Navy and president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, wrote in an email that Spinrad has a “strong commitment to advancing diversity and equity in STEM fields.”

“I strongly endorse his rapid confirmation and look forward to working with him toward a better future for our planet and our society,” White said.

Spinrad probably will be tasked with addressing a “brain drain” at the agency. A House Science Committee report documented a 9 percent decrease in NOAA’s workforce over the past decade.

Restoring the agency’s reputation and staff morale represent another area needing attention, according to people close to the agency. Both took a hit 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 Trump administration.

“After four years of neglect and denial of science, Dr. Spinrad is the perfect person to bolster the spirits of the NOAA workforce, align them around the critical work before us, and personally lead the way forward,” Eric Schwaab, senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, who worked at NOAA during the Obama administration, wrote in an email.

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Because NOAA falls within the Commerce Department and lacks independence, Spinrad will need to deftly navigate the sprawling bureaucracy to be effective, agency insiders say. On the climate issue in particular, he faces the challenge of coordinating with every Cabinet-level agency and the White House, and working under the leadership of Gina McCarthy, White House climate czar, on domestic issues, and John F. Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, on international activities.

Praise from both sides of the aisle

Former officials who served for both Republicans and Democrats praised his background, experience and ability to lead.

“Dr. Spinrad is a fantastic choice,” said Jacobs, who held on as acting NOAA administrator through the end of the Trump administration. “His technical expertise and extensive policy experience are the perfect complement to lead the agency.”

“I cannot think of a better choice for NOAA Administrator than Dr. Rick Spinrad,” retired Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, an oceanographer who served as assistant administrator at NOAA under Trump, wrote in an email. “His scientific and policy expertise in the Navy, academia, and at NOAA as the former chief scientist are simply unmatched.”

Scott Rayder, who served as chief of staff to Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA administrator under President George W. Bush, said Spinrad’s experience as chief scientist “gives him an understanding of NOAA’s vast portfolio of missions and should help NOAA research to operations activities across the agency.”

Kris Sarri, president and chief executive of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, who served on the Biden transition team, wrote that the ocean community welcomes Spinrad’s selection.

“[He] brings a wealth of experience to the position, and understands the importance of NOAA’s mission to the Nation and the world,” she wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. “NOAA is critical to helping us build a more climate resilient future for communities and sustain our ocean and Great Lakes.”

“He is a good safe choice, he is a balanced nominee who understands the breadth of issues before NOAA, climate, weather, ocean and fisheries,” Sally Yozell, who served as NOAA’s director of policy under Obama, wrote in a statement to The Post. “He knows how the federal government works so he can jump right and start to lead the agency.”

Leaders in the environmental and academic communities and private sector also applauded Spinrad’s selection.

“I saw firsthand how dedicated he is to NOAA’s mission and its people,” wrote Schwaab of the Environmental Defense Fund. “He understands and consistently communicates how critical NOAA is to the nation and to each citizen.”

“His exemplary record previously leading NOAA Research and the National Ocean Service will prove important in NOAA’s forward progress and leadership in both oceanographic and atmospheric endeavors as well as any responsibility NOAA may have for a National Climate Service, which Jupiter also strongly supports,” wrote Rich Sorkin, chief executive of Jupiter Intelligence, a company that helps governments and companies manage climate change risks.

Tony Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, also lauded his qualifications, noting “his previous experience … and close ties to the academic research community position him well to lead NOAA.”

Biden’s choice of Spinrad is not unexpected; he was mentioned as a top contender for the post by numerous people familiar with the search process dating back months.

Other candidates frequently mentioned for the NOAA role included Dawn Wright, chief scientist at the Environmental Systems Research Institute; Sherri Goodman, an expert on climate and national security; Everette Joseph, who is the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research; Scripps Institution of Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen; Ayana Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab; and Marshall Shepherd, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia.

It’s likely one or more of these candidates may end up serving as deputies to Spinrad or in positions either within and outside the administration that work closely with the agency.

Other environmental nominees

Spinrad joins several other climate and environmental officials nominated to key posts Thursday.

Stone-Manning, chosen for the Bureau of Land Management, will manage an agency that oversees more than a tenth of America’s lands, including the oil and gas drilling that takes place there.

A former aide to Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and former Montana governor Steve Bullock (D), Stone-Manning will face a formidable challenge if confirmed to take the helm of the BLM, which lost 87 percent of its Washington-based staff when the Trump administration moved the bureau’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., and distributed other positions to different towns out West.

The agency is helping conduct a review of the federal government’s oil and gas drilling program, which has emerged as a flash point since Biden halted all new federal leasing on Jan. 27.

On Thursday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to move the bureau’s headquarters back to Washington, calling it an “ill-conceived, poorly planned and shoddily executed effort.”

Environmentalists praised the selection of Stone-Manning.

“As a Montanan, an avid hunter and hiker, and a world-class conservation mind, Tracy is uniquely prepared to be the transformational leader our nation needs at the Bureau of Land Management,” said National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara, who has served as her boss since 2017. “President Biden absolutely could not have nominated anyone better to lead the restoration, conservation, and stewardship of America’s public lands for the benefit of all Americans and wildlife.”

Separately, Biden picked Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Ojibwe Bay Mills Indian Community, to serve as Interior Department assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

The president also nominated Monica Medina, who previously worked at NOAA in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, as assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Science Affairs. Medina, the wife of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, is the founder and publisher of Our Daily Planet, an environmental email newsletter, and has championed the idea of a National Climate Service.

Two key environmental nominations were made at the Energy Department. Asmeret Berhe was selected as nominee for director of the Office of Science, which conducts applied energy research and climate modeling, while Shalanda Baker was picked to direct the Office of Minority Economic Impact.

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