WASHINGTON, D.C.--The White House today tapped a veteran Washington insider for the top research post at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a job vacant for over a year. Observers say that Norine Noonan's expertise as a scientist who knows the ropes in Washington--she spent a decade on Capitol Hill and at the White House before becoming vice president for research and dean of the graduate school of Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne--will stand her in good stead in defending the $500 million research budget at EPA, an agency that's been accused of giving science short shrift.
The previous chief at EPA's Office of Research and Development, marine ecologist Bob Huggett, presided over a sometimes painful overhaul of EPA science launched in 1994 that includes shifting research dollars from agency staff to outside scientists and forcing EPA researchers and risk managers to work more closely together. Huggett left in June 1997 to head research at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Noonan earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and cell biology at Princeton, but soon moved on to a Capitol Hill fellowship and then to the White House Office of Management and Budget, where she oversaw budgets for the National Science Foundation and NASA. "She was very professional, very hard-nosed, asked all the right questions," a House staffer says. "I would rather have had a really strong scientist again," admits Linda Birnbaum, a dioxin researcher at EPA's health effects lab in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. But she and others say they're relieved a nominee has finally been chosen.
Noonan must now be confirmed by the Senate. Her "first order of business," she says, is to "get to know the organization." EPA watchers and Noonan both agree she has a lot to learn.