Is NOAA One Step Closer To Having An Administrator?

2017-12-14T10:50:04+00:00 December 4, 2017|
(Credit: AccuWeather)

(Credit: AccuWeather)

What It Was

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a nomination hearing to consider presidential nominee Mr. Barry Myers (CEO, AccuWeather, Inc.) to serve as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Why It Matters

Executive leadership is vital to, implementing missions, executing projects, creating an organizational structure and ensuring employees are supported. The leader of NOAA has a vast set of responsibilities, including the safety of Americans through weather forecasting, the livelihood of fishers through fisheries management, the support of future economic opportunities by understanding changing ocean and Earth conditions through research, and the stewardship of marine biodiversity through national marine sanctuaries and marine protected areas. Ensuring the NOAA administrator embodies the mission of the agency is critical to its success.

Key Points

Mr. Myers’ nomination to be NOAA administrator has stirred controversy.  Most concerns center on his view of climate change, lack of experience in ocean science relative to NOAA’s broad scope (e.g. fisheries management, marine commerce and charting, coastal restoration, marine sanctuaries, and satellites), absence of scientific training, previous support of privatizing NOAA responsibilities, and conflict of interest as a CEO of AccuWeather, Inc. (a for-profit weather company).

To understand Mr. Myers’ position on climate change, Senator Ed Markey (MA) queried his acceptance of evidence and research, including a recent federal report showing man-made carbon dioxide is the main contributor to the changing climate. Mr. Myers stated he had “no reason to disagree with the reports.” When the senator further asked, “So you agree humans are the main cause of climate change?” Mr. Myers responded in the affirmative, a departure from the Trump administration’s views. Democrats further described the administration’s efforts to dispute climate science and sought to understand how he would approach this given NOAA’s role in climate research. Mr. Myers declared, “If the ice is melting, the ice is melting, and one’s opinion about it is really not relevant, it’s a fact. Science should take us wherever it takes us, and we can’t dispute the facts once they’re in front of us, and we need to act upon them.” Senator James Inhofe (OK) asked if he would be willing to listen to all qualified climate scientists skeptical of climate change, and Mr. Myers agreed.

The administration and several federal agencies have altered federal climate research activities and access to government data and information; in efforts to prevent this at NOAA, Democrats inquired about his commitment to the agency’s climate research and employees’ ability to speak freely on findings. Mr. Myers expressed support of peer-reviewed research, adding, “I know what quality research looks like. I know what peer-reviewed research looks like. Scientists should be free to operate in that kind of an environment.”

Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL) outlined the range of oversight NOAA embodies in his opening statement, explaining that the agency is more than the National Weather Service (NWS) and forecasting, it is also the nation’s ocean expert with priorities of protecting habitat, regulating sustainable fishing, and ensuring safe ship navigation.

Since 1981, the administrator role has been filled by scientists, which Mr. Myers is not; however, the deputy administrator is an oceanographer, so a scientist would not be absent from the leadership team. Members acknowledged Mr. Myers’ vast experience in weather but worried about his inexperience with other facets that make up NOAA’s portfolio (e.g., ocean science and management) and his ability to run a science-focused agency. “I am not a scientist, but I have a passion for science, and I am a leader of scientists,” Mr. Myers stated, describing AccuWeather as a science and technology company. Mr. Myers also attested to scientific integrity being one of his core values that “will always be in the headlights of NOAA moving forward, if I am confirmed.”

In his opening statement, Mr. Myers stated he would prioritize improved weather models, better research to operations, scientifically-enhanced fisheries management, seafood trade imbalance, port needs, aging vessels, efficient science-based processes for permitting and environmental review, improved tornado and hurricane warnings, quality weather and climate research, licensing emerging commercial data sources, and the continuity and cost-control of satellite programs. He later proposed the use of commercial satellite data in addition to government technology. “We’re fortunate that we have new companies that are starting to come into this space with low orbit satellites that are smaller and do different or complementary missions. We need to look at all of those for solutions to the burgeoning costs [of government satellites].”

Another line of questioning related to budget constraints and balancing priorities within NOAA’s portfolio. Mr. Myers responded, “I understand the nature of the cuts, and I understand why they were done. We need to certainly examine all programs [within the office of NOAA].”

The fact that AccuWeather profits from weather forecasting while NOAA freely provides the service worried committee members. “With your family connections, your brothers at AccuWeather, obviously there is the concern about potential conflicts of interest. What we need is a NOAA administrator who will do what is the very best for the American people,” declared Ranking Member Nelson. In 2005, Mr. Myers supported legislation to limit NOAA’s abilities to provide quality weather services for free, stating, “[AccuWeather] works hard every day competing with other companies, and we also have to compete with the government.” However, during the hearing he committed to divesting his company and assured committee members of his dedication to NOAA’s mission and to the American people. Senator Brian Schatz (HI) was not entirely convinced, declaring, “You haven’t made the transition all the way to the government and representing NOAA and representing the public first. That is going to be a transition, but I would encourage you to think through, not just whether you’re complying with [the law] but understanding this new role really is different than your old role.”

Senator Roger Wicker (MS) asked about a bill he introduced designed to fully implement the COASTAL Act, which passed in 2012. The bill would use research to identify damages caused by wind versus water and requires NOAA to produce post-storm assessments following the landfall of named storms. Mr. Myers asserted, “Its implementation is and should be a prime concern.” The senator also requested support to expand and enhance marine aquaculture and to use unmanned maritime systems to meet NOAA’s missions; Mr. Myers agreed to work with him on both.

Quotable

“I fully support the ability of scientists to do their work unfettered, that this information then needs to be made available. Science should take us wherever it takes us, and we can’t dispute the facts once they’re in front of us, and we need to act upon them.” – Mr. Barry Myers (NOAA administrator nominee; CEO of AccuWeather Inc.)

“While NOAA has always put protecting the lives and properties of Americans ahead of making a buck off forecasts and warnings, your past history with the Santorum bill suggests you might do otherwise.” – Ranking Member Bill Nelson (FL)

“NOAA will and does play a key role in [aquaculture] industry and can be a vital role as we expand this to what it can be for the United States and catch up with other nations.” – Senator Roger Wicker (MS)

Next Steps

The committee has not yet scheduled a vote on Mr. Myers’ confirmation.

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership