Despite Tumult, NOAA's Lubchenco Would Like 4 More Years

Wave maker. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco (center), shown here at a 2010 international fisheries meeting in Paris, is hoping to stay in the thick of U.S. marine and atmospheric science and policy.


It's been a tumultuous few years for marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, the head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She's confronted an unprecedented and politically sensitive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, struggled to keep expensive satellite programs on track, and butted heads with Congress, which sank her efforts to reorganize NOAA's climate science programs and appoint the agency's first chief scientist in nearly 2 decades. Still, Lubchenco says she'd like to keep her job if President Barack Obama is reelected in November.

"There is so much more yet to do, and I want to do everything possible to make [it] happen," she tells ScienceInsider. ScienceInsider traveled to Monterey, California, last week to attend a scientific conference on ocean acidification, where this wide-ranging interview with Lubchenco took place.

In addition to discussing NOAA's budget and infrastructure challenges, Lubchenco revealed that she's hoping to soon fill the agency's long-empty chief scientist slot, which Congress recently removed from a list of positions requiring confirmation by the Senate. "I really want to fill that position," she says. "I can't imagine a science agency not having a chief scientist." The White House could announce the appointment as early as this month, she added, but declined to give any hints. Her initial pick to fill the position, geochemist Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, stepped aside this past January after Senator David Vitter (R-LA) blocked a vote on his nomination as a result of an unrelated dispute with the Obama Administration.

In the meantime, Lubchenco says she's relieved that a temporary spending measure that Congress approved last month gives NOAA special permission to move ahead with two satellite systems. The measure—called a continuing resolution—essentially freezes spending for most government programs for 6 months. But it allows NOAA to proceed with a planned ramp-up in spending on its $12 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which needs $916 million in fiscal year 2013 to stay on track to launch in 2017. The agency will also be able to forge ahead with its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R program, which was in line to get a $200 million boost, to $802 million.

The arrangement reflects a bipartisan desire to avoid further delays in the two programs, which will provide critical data to weather forecasters, disaster planners, and climate scientists, Lubchenco says. "Normally NOAA would be building either a geostationary system or a polar orbiting system," but "for historical reasons, we are doing both right now," she says. "That is a lot of money."

Even so, she notes, the deal can't make up for delays caused by past budget battles and management missteps. Analysts predict that JPSS, even if it stays on schedule, won't be launched in time to replace existing polar orbiters before they fail. That could leave a data gap of 17 months or longer. A funding delay this year "would have made that gap even longer," Lubchenco says. "All the money in the world doesn't allow you to catch up." The United States is trying to arrange with other nations for help in covering the gap, but recent reports have questioned whether NOAA is doing enough to prepare.

Although the satellite programs fared well in the continuing resolution, other NOAA programs will feel a squeeze, she says. "NOAA has a much broader portfolio than just satellites," she says. So the budget freeze, and the continuing uncertainty over a final budget for 2013, is "highly unfortunate because NOAA has a mission that is broader than just providing spectacular weather forecasts and disaster warnings."

The sometimes eye-popping price of the big equipment needed for marine and atmospheric research—such as ships, satellites, and sensors—is a growing concern, she acknowledges. But there's no easy answer. "Our ships are aging seriously and the cost of many of our platforms is increasing."

To help cut data collection costs, NOAA has identified twofers, such as having fisheries research vessels also collect data used in creating navigation charts. "We realized our fisheries vessels are taking a lot of data that are relevant to the navigation services," she says, so the agency started running cruises that seek to "map once [and] use many times." And the agency is looking for more ways to "share assets, share platforms, share data."

If Obama wins a second term, one issue on the table will be the Administration's National Ocean Policy. The White House wants to enhance collaboration between federal agencies that deal with ocean issues, organize marine data collected across the federal government, and give state and local governments a say in regional planning efforts that involve federal waters. The effort has become a favorite target for some Republicans in Congress as well as local fishing and industry groups, who argue that it is primarily designed to extend federal regulation in coastal areas. Lubchenco says that "there is a lot of misinformation out there about the [National Ocean Policy] and that is unfortunate; a lot of people got bogged down in the process and lost sight of the goals." But she says many states are engaged in regional efforts to organize data and identify information gaps. States "are moving on with it," she says. "There are some regions that are ready, willing, and able to do it."

Lubchenco is upbeat on the status of U.S. fisheries: "It has not been broadly appreciated how significant the progress has been on ending overfishing." After years of struggles, the federal government has finally legally required management plans in place for more than 500 fish stocks and "stock complexes" in federal waters, she notes. "Just having those is a major accomplishment … and they have teeth," she says. She conceded that efforts to introduce market-based regulations into some fisheries, such as the allocation of tradable "catch share," or quotas, has been controversial. "There has been a lot of noise around catch shares," she says, but "for those fisheries for which catch shares are appropriate, they are a very powerful way of ensuring sustainable, economically viable fisheries that are working for fishers and fish. Gotta have both."

Internationally, Lubchenco says NOAA is trying to "tackle head-on the problem of pirate fishing. The jargon term is 'IUU'—illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing—but pirate fishing is a little more user-friendly. It is a major problem globally. As much as 40% of some fisheries are illegal, and it is devastating to many nations, especially developing nations." The United States is working with numerous other nations to find ways to crack down on the practice, she says, including better enforcement, trade rules, and catch limits "based on science. … Imagine that!" Such reforms "will make a real difference," she says, "if they can be sustained."