President Joe Biden completes his scientific team. The White House announced the nominees yesterday head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE), and the Department of State’s Office of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. The trio includes two government veterans and a newcomer.
NOAA, one of the nation’s leading climate-focused agencies, held a dubious distinction under former President Donald Trump: It lasted her entire term without an administrator who had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Yesterday, Biden decided to end his interim leadership streak, appointing Rick Spinrad, oceanographer at Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis, and long-time NOAA member, as the agency’s next head.
Spinrad was previously NOAA’s chief scientist under former President Barack Obama. Previously, he held positions under former President George W. Bush, leading the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research of NOAA, the agency’s main climate science arm, and its National Ocean Service. Spinrad has been a prominent critic of the Trump administration’s meddling in the agency’s forecast for Hurricane Dorian and its late installment of climate annoyances in several leading roles. Although these scientists have been fired, Spinrad will likely seek to restore public confidence in the agency while boosting staff morale.
In recent years, NOAA’s budget – which covers a wide range of tasks, from fisheries management and weather forecasting to seabed mapping – has hovered around $ 5 billion. The Biden administration has proposed increasing the agency’s budget to $ 6.9 billion in 2022, but provided few details. The White House said a large portion of any new money would be spent on expanding climate observation, improving forecasting, and supporting coastal resilience programs.
Spinrad’s appointment is likely to receive broad support. The head of the House of Representatives Scientific Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D – TX), congratulated him in a statement today. “I know scientific integrity will be a guiding principle of Dr. Spinrad’s tenure as head of NOAA,” she said. Spinrad will also benefit from the support of the upper echelons of the Biden administration: Another former NOAA administrator and OSU scientist, Jane Lubchenco, is now the senior White House climatologist in her Office of Science and Technology Policy.
At the DOE, the Biden administration has turned to an outsider to run its $ 7 billion research office, which is the largest funder of the physical sciences in the United States and manages most x-ray synchrotrons. of the country and other large users based on accelerators. facilities. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, soil scientist at the University of California (UC), Merced, studied how soil processes can capture carbon, a potentially key process in combating the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. She was rewarded for her work in promoting scientific diversity. Born in Eritrea, Berhe would become the first black woman to head the science bureau if confirmed by the Senate.
Berhe’s appointment is “totally understandable and perfectly logical,” says John Harte, an environmentalist at UC Berkeley who was Berhe’s doctoral adviser. “It will bring a new vision to the scientific research funded by the DOE.” The Office of Science supports six diverse research programs: Advanced Scientific Research in Computer Science, Basic Energy Sciences – including Chemistry and Materials Science, Biological and Environmental Research, Energy Science of fusion, high energy particle physics and nuclear physics. It also manages 10 national laboratories with thousands of employees. Many of the former directors of the office, but not all, have held managerial positions in national laboratories or worked in administration in large private laboratories such as the famous Bell Labs. Many were physicists. In contrast, Berhe has little experience as an administrator or with the DOE. According to his CV, she never held a position of scientific administrator. She received a DOE grant of $ 200,000 and was a reviewer for a few DOE proposals. More of its funding comes from the National Science Foundation.
But Berhe’s appointment is consistent with the administration’s focus on climate change, says Cherry Murray, a physicist at the University of Arizona who served as director of the Bureau of Science from 2015 to 2017 under the administration. Obama. Murray notes that during his tenure, the Biological and Environmental Research Program received a proposal to collaborate with the US Department of Agriculture on a soil microbiome study project. The project only got funding from the DOE, she said, but the effort shows the relevance of soil science to the DOE’s mission. “This meeting is opportune,” she said. “I can’t wait to get to know her.”
To lead the State Department’s science and climate portfolio, Biden enlisted Monica Medina, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and senior associate of the Stephenson Ocean Security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Medina, who trained as a lawyer, is also CEO and co-founder of Our Daily Planet, an e-newsletter on conservation and the environment.
Medina previously held several ocean-related government positions under Obama and former President Bill Clinton, and also worked in Congress and for environmental organizations. Her husband, Ron Klain, is Biden’s chief of staff.
Eric Schwaab, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, applauded Medina’s appointment. “Monica is a national and international leader on environmental issues,” he said, “with extensive experience in government, law, policy and conservation.
The three candidates will have to be confirmed by the Senate before taking up their duties.
With reports from Adrian Cho, David Malakoff and Paul Voosen.