White House Gives Up on NOAA Science Chief Nomination

Back to work. Scott Doney's nomination as NOAA chief scientist fell victim to oil drilling politics.

John Bullister, NOAA/PMEL

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has claimed another casualty. The White House yesterday formally withdrew its nomination of geochemist Scott Doney to be chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A U.S. Senate vote on Doney's nomination had been blocked for more than a year by Senator David Vitter (R-LA), who was unhappy with the Obama Administration's decision to impose a moratorium on offshore drilling in the wake of the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I was deeply honored by the President's nomination and am disappointed that the confirmation process was, in the end, unsuccessful," Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. "High-quality science is central to all facets of NOAA's mission. The agency would benefit from the appointment of a Chief Scientist who could help focus NOAA's research program and efforts to integrate the best science into NOAA's ocean stewardship and the many products and services NOAA provides to the public."

Under U.S. Senate rules, a single lawmaker can place a "hold" on a nomination, effectively preventing a vote. Doney's nomination had been approved by a Senate committee, but never got a vote in the full Senate after Vitter announced a hold in December 2010. In a letter to President Barack Obama, Vitter wrote that he was imposing the hold because he was "uncomfortable confirming a high-level science advisor within your administration while there remain significant outstanding concerns over scientific integrity at federal agencies and the White House, including with regard to the recent drilling moratorium and the ongoing bottleneck in permitting, which I would characterize as a continuing de facto moratorium."

The withdrawal marks another setback for NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco. House Republicans have blocked her efforts to establish a new Climate Service within NOAA, and Doney's nomination marked an effort to raise the profile of the chief scientist's position. In October 2009, she announced a NOAA reorganization that included "reinstituting and elevating the role" to a presidential appointment.

Doney isn't the first agency chief scientist that Vitter has opposed. Earlier, he stalled a vote on the nomination of green chemistry guru Paul Anastas to be the Environmental Protection Agency's research chief. Anastas was ultimately confirmed, but announced earlier this month that he is resigning from the position to return to Yale University.