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Richard Spinrad

Oregon State University

NOAA Gets First Chief Scientist in More Than a Decade

President Barack Obama today announced that he intends to appoint oceanographer Richard “Rick” Spinrad to become the next chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Spinrad would be the agency’s first chief scientist since former astronaut and earth scientist Kathryn Sullivan—now NOAA’s Administrator—held the job in the mid-1990s.

The move marks the administration’s second effort to fill the post, which it reestablished in 2009 as a presidential appointment requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate. (Previous administrations downgraded, eliminated, or refused to fill the position.) But the White House’s initial nominee, geochemist Scott Doney, ultimately withdrew his name in 2012 after a 2-year battle with Republicans in the U.S. Senate. In particular, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) blocked a vote on the nomination to protest the Obama administration’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Because of changes to federal personnel rules, Spinrad will not need Senate confirmation.

Now the vice president for research at Oregon State University (OSU), Corvallis, Spinrad is a known face at NOAA and in Washington. He served as NOAA’s assistant administrator for research from 2005 to 2010 and led its oceans and coastal zone programs from 2003 to 2005. From 1987 to 2003, he worked for the U.S. Navy, including as technical director for the oceanographer of the Navy. He earned his doctorate at OSU.

“Rick will do a terrific job,” predicts marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, a former NOAA administrator who returned to OSU in 2013 after 4 years in Washington. “He understands science and politics, has an extensive network of key players and he knows the agency well. I'm delighted this essential position will finally be filled.”

“He’s got a lot challenges waiting at NOAA, but having that history [at the agency] makes him a great choice,” says Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Spinrad, he adds, has “a great combination” of science and management experience.