Setting new sights. NOAA needs to clarify its research goals, according to an expert panel.

Sea Change in Store for NOAA?

U.S. oceanic and atmospheric science programs appear headed for a significant shakeup. Advisers to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today recommended that the agency consolidate some of its dozens of laboratories, appoint a new high-level research czar, and craft a long-term science plan. The advice comes after Congress and some scientists criticized parts of the agency's research program.

The $3.3 billion NOAA is one of the world's largest funders of science that probes the sea and sky, ranging from efforts to predict the weather and climate change to studies of fish populations and coral reefs. In recent years, however, critics have stepped up complaints that some NOAA science programs are disjointed and inscrutable. Last year, Congress ordered the agency to examine ways to streamline one of its major research arms, the $350 million Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), which operates a dozen laboratories and 13 institutes and employs about 900 people.

NOAA needs to merge some of those labs to improve its science program, the head of a five-member review team told the agency's Science Advisory Board today. "It's sometimes not clear why some programs are located where they are ... or how they fit into the big picture," said climate scientist Berrien Moore III of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, the lead author of the preliminary report. His team, which also included several senior NOAA officials, also said the lack of a comprehensive strategic plan had made it difficult for the agency to gain support for its programs from White House budget officials, Congress, and outside scientists. And the panel recommended that the agency appoint a high-ranking scientist to set priorities and move money between the agency's far-flung research programs.

NOAA chief Conrad Lautenbacher said he wasn't ready to comment on specifics, but he said that "most folks would look at the principles outlined in the report and find them pretty reasonable." And new OAR head Richard Rosen said that although the talk of a shakeup has made some agency scientists nervous, his laboratory directors "have been supportive" of the review and recognize that "change may be coming." The panel will deliver more specific recommendations in its final report, due out in May.

Related sites
Preliminary NOAA Research Review
NOAA Research Review Web site