Pioneering ecologist to head NOAA

Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State says she's eager to take on issues including global warming, polluted coastal waters and severely depleted fish populations.

March 20, 2009|Kenneth R. Weiss

The Senate gave its blessing late Thursday to key members of President Obama's science team, including an Oregon State University ecologist who will be the first woman and first marine scientist to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Senate voted unanimously to confirm Harvard physicist John Holdren as Obama's top science advisor and Oregon State ecologist Jane Lubchenco as administrator of NOAA, an agency that conducts much of the nation's climate-change research, forecasts the weather and regulates commercial fishing.

Lubchenco said she was eager to get started because of pressing burdens on the economy and the environment, including global warming, polluted coastal waters and severely depleted fish populations.

"We really don't have a choice," she said in an interview. "We have to move rapidly ahead because of chronic problems that need immediate solutions."

Lubchenco, 61, will take a leave from her 40-member laboratory at Oregon State to lead the $4.3-billion agency with 12,800 employees.

Her immediate agenda includes pushing for a National Climate Service to coordinate federal research into greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and shifting climatic patterns.

She said the logical home for a climate service is NOAA, because of its experience running the National Weather Service and its deep bench of climate researchers. And she cited increasingly sophisticated models that can help government and businesses make longer-term plans to cope with climate change.

"It's an idea whose time has come," Lubchenco said.

Obama announced Lubchenco's appointment soon after his election, along with other key science advisors including Holdren, who will lead the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

By including the new NOAA administrator as part of his core science team, Obama gave a boost to NOAA scientists who have long lamented the agency's low stature in Washington -- and who had complained their findings were altered or suppressed during George W. Bush's presidency.

Lubchenco said Obama has declared it "a new day" for scientists at NOAA and other federal agencies.

"There will be no muzzling or muffling or distortion of science, or delays in science in this administration," Lubchenco said. The best available science will guide policy decisions, she said, and discoveries or updates will be shared "whether they meet our preconceived ideas or meet our agenda."

Lubchenco said she didn't seek the job but was won over by Obama's persistence.

When she met with the president-elect in December, she said, "I shared with him my ideas for how NOAA could provide the country with the best climate-change science, how we might restore the vitality of the oceans, recharge the economy and help the nation transition to a more sustainable way of living. His comment to me was, 'Let's do it.' "

Lubchenco said she and former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who is in line to be her boss as Commerce secretary, are in sync on their priorities for NOAA. One shared concern is restoring the West Coast's salmon fishery. Their backgrounds and interests may signal a westward shift of focus in an agency best known for tangling with New England fishermen over the cod collapse and for tracking hurricanes.

Lubchenco's core expertise is marine ecology; most recently she led an examination of a newly emerging low-oxygen "dead zone" off the Oregon coast. Besides her own research, she was a member of the Pew Oceans Commission, one of two national panels that declared the oceans in poor health and offered hundreds of remedies.

She joined the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, which gave poor grades to the Bush administration's plan to restore oceans.

From her experiences, she said, she learned what Americans want from the ocean: "It boils down to clean beaches, safe and healthy seafood, abundant wildlife, stable fisheries and vibrant coastal communities -- not just now but in the future, to share with our kids and grandkids. That's where we need to go. NOAA needs to lead the way."

Andrew A. Rosenberg, a NOAA official under President Clinton who is now at the University of New Hampshire, said that NOAA for the first time will be led by an acclaimed scientist who can articulate a vision for ocean restoration and isn't averse to difficult policy decisions.

"I would never underestimate Jane," he said.

Lubchenco earned a Ph.D. in ecology from Harvard and joined the faculty. She gave up her tenure-track job after two years to move to Oregon State so she could split a full-time professorship with her husband, ecologist Bruce Menge, and have more time with her children.

She eventually went full time and has garnered awards that include a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a Pew Marine Fellowship and the Heinz Award for the Environment. She is also past president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the International Council for Science and the Ecological Society of America.


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