Joe Biden has tapped Rick Spinrad to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency at the vanguard of climate, weather and ocean science for the United States.
The nomination marks the potential end to a rocky period in Noaa’s history, where the agency went years without a permanent leader while enduring scandal during the Trump administration.
Spinrad, an oceanography professor at Oregon State University and the former chief scientist of Noaa, was among a cohort of environment-related nominees publicized by the White House for Earth Day.
“From my days as a graduate student at OSU, I always held Noaa in such high regard for the quality and importance of its work,” Spinrad said, adding that the opportunity was “both humbling and exciting”.
Noaa has an expansive role in protecting the US economy and environment, including providing weather forecasts, monitoring climate, managing fisheries and helping with marine commerce, according to the agency’s website. It oversees offices such as the National Weather Service and the National Ocean Service.
Donald Trump, nominated businessman Barry Lee Myers to head the agency in 2017. But Myers later withdrew over health concerns after he went unconfirmed for more than two years.
Meanwhile, the agency came under fire in 2019, when it released a statement defending Trump’s inaccurate claims that a hurricane would seriously affect Alabama, undermining its own meteorologists who had tried to set the record straight.
After years of tumult, Spinrad’s champions voiced their excitement about a team that could competently address some of the world’s most existential threats.
“Dr Spinrad is the perfect person to bolster the spirits of the Noaa workforce, align them around the critical work before us, and personally lead the way forward,” Eric Schwaab, senior vice-president for the ecosystems and oceans program at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.
“The women and men of Noaa – the scientists and resource managers, the ship captains and airplane pilots, the disaster response experts and weather forecasters – couldn’t ask for a better leader to restore scientific integrity and honor the agency’s mission.”
But Biden’s selection of Spinrad, who is a white man, could also draw scrutiny, given Noaa’s lack of diversity. Its Stem workforce employed nearly three men for every woman in fiscal year 2020, and overall, its white employees outnumbered racial and ethnic minorities almost four to one.
Rear Adm Jonathan White, president and chief executive of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, directed focus to Spinrad’s “strong commitment to advancing diversity and equity in stem fields”.
“At a time when the many aspects of Earth science (including the ocean, atmosphere, and climate) are so important to the health and prosperity of our nation and the world, it’s hard to imagine a more qualified candidate,” White said in a statement. “I strongly endorse his rapid confirmation.”