Biden Picks Rick Spinrad to Head NOAA

Biden Picks Rick Spinrad to Head NOAA

Today is Earth Day and President Biden announced his intent to nominate Rick Spinrad to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a key agency in studying climate change. An oceanographer, Spinrad is a former NOAA Chief Scientist now at Oregon State University.

NOAA has not had a permanent head since Kathy Sullivan left at the end of the Obama Administration.

Donald Trump’s original nominee, Barry Lee Myers, was very controversial and although the nomination was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, it was never voted on by the full Senate. He ultimately withdrew in late 2019 for health reasons and Trump nominated Neil Jacobs, who had been confirmed as one of NOAA’s deputies and was serving as Acting Administrator. Jacobs also was approved by the Senate committee, but his nomination did not reach the floor for a vote either.

The four years of the Trump Administration were difficult for NOAA, especially during “Sharpiegate” where Trump insisted that Hurricane Dorian threatened Alabama even though the National Weather Service (NWS), part of NOAA, did not have it in the warning area. Someone used a Sharpie pen to alter the NWS map used by Trump in a briefing to include Alabama and NOAA issued an unsigned letter criticizing the NWS for contradicting the President.

NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce (DOC). An investigation by the DOC Inspector General and another by the National Academy of Public Administration were highly critical of Jacobs and other department officials, including the DOC Acting General Counsel, for violating NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.

The issue arose again just yesterday during a Senate Commerce hearing on the nomination of Leslie Kiernan to be the new DOC General Counsel.  Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked Kiernan to commit that her office “always follows science” unlike her predecessor who “interfered with science” and “drafted public statements rebuking career scientists” at the NWS.  Kiernan answered affirmatively.

Richard “Rick” Spinrad, Biden nominee to be NOAA Administrator, Credit: Oregon State University.

Spinrad, who would be Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, a position dual-hatted as Administrator of NOAA, was NOAA’s Chief Scientist from 2014 to 2016. Before and after, he has been a professor at Oregon State University (OSU) and former OSU vice president for research.

In a statement today, OSU pointed out he will be the third person from the university to head NOAA, following John Byrne in the Reagan Administration and Jane Lubchenco.

Lubchenco was NOAA Administrator during the first Obama term and has just accepted a position in the Biden White House as Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for Climate and the Environment.

Spinrad said in the statement that “From my days as a graduate student at OSU, I always held NOAA in such high regard for the quality and importance of its work. The opportunity to serve as NOAA Administrator is both humbling and exciting.”

He has a bachelor’s in earth and planetary science from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s and PhD in oceanography from OSU.

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