Jane Lubchenco
Jane Lubchenco.
Photo: oregonstate.edu

If and when marine biologist Jane Lubchenco is confirmed as the next administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she’ll find herself leading an organization with a huge jurisdiction — the oceans and atmosphere — but with limited power to take action.

NOAA’s influence has always been limited by its role as a measurement and monitoring agency, a sort of geeky scientist holed up in a lab while the real decision-making happens elsewhere. Of the six agencies that make up NOAA, five are decidedly research-focused (the National Marine Fisheries Service also has an enforcement arm).

But Lubchenco is a different breed of scientist, one as comfortable testifying to Congress as she is conducting research in the field. For years she’s been a clear-voiced advocate for marine protection and for addressing the impact of carbon emissions on ocean ecosystems. She helped found the COMPASS program, an effort to help scientists better communicate their messages to the media, politicians, and the public.

Her leadership, coupled with President Obama’s much-heralded “return of science” to the executive branch, could give NOAA a newly prominent role in the work to address climate change.

That’s the hope, anyway, for climate leaders and marine advocates. Once they finished turning cartwheels at the news of her nomination, both groups heaped praise on Lubchenco, who has spent the last 30 years on the faculty at Oregon State University (OSU).

“I can’t think of a more highly respected scientist than Jane,” said Vikki Spruill, President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy. “She is not only respected in her field, which you would expect, but she has a really uncanny ability to work across a variety of sectors and with different kinds of people.”

Among the glitziest in her long list of awards are a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship. Andrew Rosenberg, a University of New Hampshire professor of natural resources and former NOAA fisheries scientist, said the symbolism of an “elite” scientist accepting the NOAA administrator job would help the agency attract new talent to replace its aging workforce.

But Lubchenco has also embraced the role of advocate more enthusiastically than most scientists, her colleagues say. In 1998, she founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which focuses on training talented young scientists to be effective communicators with the media and policymakers.

“There are very few scientists who are willing to step into that [advocacy] role because it’s perceived to compromise your academic credentials,” said Ben Halpern, a collaborator with Lubchenco on a large-scale ecosystem research project on the West Coast. “But she negotiates that really well.”

Before her nomination, Lubchenco told New York Times’ Andy Revkin:

The evidence is now overwhelming that even the immense oceans are depleted and disrupted. Turns out that oceans are more vulnerable — and more valuable — than we thought. So, yes, ocean conservation has lagged far behind land conservation: we could neither see or imagine the changes, so we assumed everything was copacetic. Even though the area in a protected status is far from the only criterion for conservation status, the fact that between 5-10% of the land is in parks and preserves and less than 1% of oceans is protected gives some sense of the disparity.

Lubchenco isn’t granting interviews until after her Senate confirmation hearing, reportedly scheduled for next Thursday. Because NOAA falls under the Department of Commerce, the hearing was delayed by Bill Richardson withdrawing his nomination to serve as commerce secretary.

Should the Senate confirm her, Lubchenco will face the same post-Bush repair work that scientific agencies across the executive branch are confronting. Bush’s NOAA chief was cautious to a fault on the subject of anthropogenic climate change, and the Bush administration was accused of blocking NOAA climate researchers from talking with the media. NOAA’s budget grew during Bush’s first term and held steady at $3.9 billion during his second, even as demand for climate measurement resources rose. Chronically over-budget satellite research programs have consumed more and more of the total budget, according to Rosenberg, deputy director for the fisheries service during the Clinton administration. (The economic stimulus package passed by the House last week includes $600 million for NOAA satellites along with $400 million for NOAA habitat restoration projects.)

Spruill, who has testified with Lubchenco to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said Lubchenco’s inclination to focus on ecosystems will serve her well in navigating and uniting the NOAA bureaucracy.

“She’s an ecologist by training, so she has a real gift for thinking holistically and in an integrated way,” Spruill said. “She’s a master connecter of not only people but also of thoughts and concepts.”

President Nixon formed NOAA in 1970 by grouping together three existing agencies. Its current agencies — the National Weather Service, the National Ocean Service, the fisheries service, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, and Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research — have retained their isolated identities, according to Rosenberg.

“It was assembled as a collection of agencies, and it’s always kind of remained a collection of agencies,” he said.

He said Lubchenco’s most pressing task will be steering the federal government toward ecosystem-based management, an approach that manages things such as coastal development, land-based pollution, and fisheries as connected issues, not isolated ones. It’s something for which Lubchenco has urged:

There is no way we can control marine ecosystems, we only control human activities that affect them. We cannot choose the state of a system we want, we can only provide the conditions for ecosystems to be healthy, productive and resilient and thus provide humans with the ecosystem services we want and need. We cannot go back in time to some past system, but we can protect and restore the functioning of today’s ecosystems so they can be as healthy, productive and resilient as possible.

Americans say they want healthy seafood, clean beaches, stable fisheries, abundant wildlife and vibrant coastal communities (all identified by Americans to the Pew Oceans Commission during our hearings around the nation). Having those requires healthy, productive, resilient ecosystems, so that should be the goal, not some predetermined state.

Obama and his staff haven’t indicated how they plan to use NOAA on climate and ocean issues, though Lubchenco is sure to be asked about that at her confirmation hearing next Thursday. Senators, too, are staying mum on the issue until their chance to question her at the hearing. That should provide a glimpse into the administration’s plans for ocean protection, and into Lubchenco’s plans for the priorities she’ll have in her new position.