NOAA Set for Larger Policy Role

Jane Lubchenco, the newly confirmed head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, decided to dedicate her life to the sea 40 years ago when she became fascinated with a tiny species of mud-burrowing clam.

Lubchenco, then an undergraduate at Colorado College, was taking a summer course on invertebrates at Marine Biological Laboratories with a group of graduate students. She was given a chance to study why the Yoldia had a small, mysterious structure attached to the edge of its body.

“I was blown away by this world I didn’t know existed,” she said of studying invertebrates, adding that she was amazed “by the incredible diversity” of forms and functions among mollusks, arthropods and other small creatures.

Now, after devoting her career to academia, the former Oregon State University professor will become the first woman to lead the agency of roughly 12,500 employees that provides weather and climate forecasting, monitors atmospheric data, manages marine fisheries and mammals, and maps and charts all U.S. waters.

Lubchenco (pronounced LOOB-chin-ko) takes the helm of NOAA at a time when the agency is poised to play a more prominent role as the Obama administration tackles the issue of climate change. The agency’s fiscal 2009 budget stands at nearly $4.4 billion, but under this month’s stimulus allocation, NOAA will receive a nearly 20 percent boost — an additional $830 million. The legislation includes $170 million for climate change research as well as $230 million for habitat restoration, navigation projects and vessel maintenance, along with another $430 million for the construction and repair of NOAA facilities, ships and equipment, improvements in weather forecasting and satellite development.

In recent years, Lubchenco — who has conducted scientific studies of how global warming has affected the ocean — has made it clear that she sees climate change as a problem and thinks the federal government should do more to curb human-generated greenhouse gases. In October, she questioned the past administration’s approach to the issue, telling the Associated Press, “The Bush administration has not been respectful of the science. But I think that’s not true of Republicans in general. I know it’s not.”

In an interview this week, Lubchenco said she thinks it is the job of scientists to inform policymakers about how the world’s natural systems are changing and the consequences of various possible courses of action, without being overly prescriptive. It’s a message she has championed as the founder of three groups that aim to communicate science to the public. One of them, the Leopold Leadership Program, teaches environmental scientists how they can best influence public policymaking.

“Good government depends on good science, but the role of science is to inform, not to dictate policy decisions,” she said. “These decisions will take into account economics, politics and social values, and that’s the way it is.”

One of her first initiatives, she added, will be to establish a National Climate Service, loosely modeled on the National Weather Service.

“NOAA has a key role to play in providing the fundamental knowledge about the climate system, providing data as to how the system is changing and taking all of that information and providing it in a way that’s easy to understand in order to make decisions,” she said.

Lubchenco made these comments in the lobby of the J.W. Marriott, the downtown hotel she had taken to calling “my office” because her confirmation process had dragged on for weeks. The marine ecologist received a warm reception from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation when she and White House science adviser John P. Holdren testified before it last month, but internal Senate politics delayed the two scientists’ nominations from reaching the floor until Thursday night.