President Donald Trump late yesterday nominated Barry Myers—CEO of AccuWeather, the for-profit forecasting company in State College, Pennsylvania—to lead the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation's premier agency for weather, climate, and ocean research. As a wealthy businessman, Myers fits the mold of other Trump picks.
Myers leads AccuWeather with his two brothers, both weather forecasters. He has business and law degrees, but will bring no scientific expertise to an agency that traditionally has been led by administrators holding scientific doctorates. Yet Myers is well-acquainted with at least one NOAA division: the National Weather Service (NWS), which provides the free data and models that AccuWeather relies on for its forecasts. His nomination is a sign that the Trump administration could seek to further shake up parts of the country's weather enterprise, says Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “No NOAA administrator has been willing to make the substantial, but necessary, changes,” he says. “Is it possible that an outsider from the private sector might consider a fresh approach?”
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Myers will lead an agency under stress. The White House has proposed slashing NOAA's 2018 budget by 17%, with the cuts targeting ocean and climate research, along with the development of a next-generation weather model. Although the 2018 spending bill passed by the House of Representatives did include a double-digit drop in the agency’s overall budget, the Senate has indicated that many of those cuts—such as zeroing out the popular Sea Grant program or reducing investment into a next-generation weather model—won't happen. The agency’s budget is now frozen as part of a government-wide holding pattern that expires in early December.
Still, given the administration’s proposal, it will be tough for Myers to win over the workforce, says David Titley, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University in State College and a former chief operating officer for NOAA. There's a genuine risk that NOAA's best researchers, who aren't lacking for opportunities, could flee, Titley adds. "That damage lasts for years or even decades."
Myers will have to get up to speed quickly on NOAA's many duties. He must also become fluent in the business of launching weather satellites, which has long been an expensive and fraught process. As NOAA administrator, he would also be responsible for the country's fisheries, a role that has tripped up past administrators as it often involves unfamiliar science and heated regional debates that don’t follow familiar partisan divisions. And he would lead offices housing many of the country's top researchers in ocean and atmospheric science, including climate change.
Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, was NOAA administrator from 2009 to 2013. She hopes Myers will pledge to continue providing peer-reviewed research, without a political filter, to the public. "Not only is that the right thing to do," she says, "but NOAA is required by legal mandate from Congress to forecast, record, report, monitor, and distribute meteorological, hydrological, and climate data."
The elephant in the room for Myers will be climate change, Titley says, including his interactions with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, both of whom have downplayed the risks of human-caused global warming. How is he "going to reconcile the overwhelming and ever-strengthening evidence of climate change and its direct relationship to manmade emissions, and statements from the White House and Cabinet secretaries that ignore that link?" Titley wonders.
Myers has rarely said much about global warming, and AccuWeather, unlike its rival The Weather Company, has not taken up the cause of climate change. The company did not seek to stifle commentary, but neither did it foster it, Myers has said. "We have said to our scientists, if you have special skills in climate, if you want to voice your professional opinion, our platforms are open to you," Myers told The Wall Street Journal in 2014. "We do not want people getting involved in the political aspect of this debate."
At NOAA, Myers will be joined by several deputies. Last week the Senate confirmed Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet of the U.S. Navy as Myers's assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. Gallaudet brings scientific credentials to the job: In addition to serving as the Navy's chief oceanographer, he holds a doctorate in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied how eddies in the Pacific Ocean distort the propagation of sonar.
Gallaudet has been a more prominent, if moderate, voice on climate change. He has helped lead Task Force Climate Change, the Navy's investigation into warming-related phenomena such as vanishing Arctic sea ice and rising sea levels, which, respectively, open up new regions for military action or threaten the service’s shoreline bases. “To know that we could traverse the North Pole with a surface ship by 2030 changes the game,” Gallaudet said in an interview last year with The San Diego Union-Tribune. As chief oceanographer, Gallaudet has served as the Navy's liaison with NOAA, two institutions that share a similar research portfolio, including the development of weather forecasts.
Although Myers may not be a strong voice for climate science, some meteorologists are hopeful that he will focus on what he knows best: the weather. In March, Congress passed a law mandating changes to the weather service, ordering it to develop more rigorous predictions for 2 weeks to 2 years in advance, which will entail the development of a unified model for weather and climate. The law also mandates a change in how the service communicates weather risks, and it bolsters research on hurricanes and tsunamis. Enacting these changes will be up to Myers and his deputies.
Myers can go further, though, Mass says. "The next NOAA administrator has a huge opportunity: to make the large structural changes in NOAA that would allow U.S. weather prediction to flourish," he says. What might such change look like? Mass says it could involve merging the groups responsible for researching and running weather prediction, pruning some out-of-date models, and engaging with outside researchers and the private sector. There are already signs that private companies are willing to take on the mammoth task of developing their own forecast models. This summer, The Weather Company announced a deal to develop its own forecast model in collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
In this work, Myers has a likely ally in Neil Jacobs, whom Trump has nominated to serve as assistant secretary of commerce, environmental observation, and prediction. Jacobs is the chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics in Bothell, Washington, where he has developed a private weather forecast system that builds on NWS’s own model, and he has spoken frequently of the potential for harnessing private investment to improve forecasts while supporting continued public financing of weather models and research.
Myers could also take up the challenge of consolidating the forecasting services provided by NWS’s 122 autonomous regional offices. In 2015, a Senate bill called for relocating staff and centralizing forecasts into just six regions. But the legislation died in the face of widespread opposition from the service's unionized employees.
Indeed, as The Washington Post previously reported, Myers's nomination has been opposed by the NWS labor union, which sees him as "wholly unqualified" for the position. The union's opposition to Myers stretches back to a proposal in 2005 that would have prevented NWS from providing services similar to AccuWeather.
That legislation went nowhere. But the union hasn't forgotten, Richard Hirn, an NWS spokesperson in Washington, D.C., told the Post. "If Myers is confirmed, he will be able to order the NWS to do what Congress was unwilling to do—which is to turn The Weather Service into a taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy of AccuWeather."
The union's opposition is just one sign that Myers and his deputies will find running NOAA very different from the private sector. "If they treat NOAA purely like a business or like an arm of the military, they should be prepared to be disappointed with the results," Titley says.