Myers Nomination to Head NOAA Stirs Controversy

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Publication date: 
18 October 2017
Number: 
137

Following President Trump’s nomination of AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some community leaders have expressed support while others have reservations about his lack of scientific background and potential conflicts of interest. Myers’ recent congressional testimony sheds light on his views on a number of science-related topics.

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Barry Myers, who provided advice to Congress on the development of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act for nearly four years, testified before the House Science Committee in June 2016.

Barry Myers, who provided advice to Congress on the development of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act for nearly four years, testified before the House Science Committee in June 2016.

(Image credit - House Science Committee)

On Oct. 11, President Trump nominated Barry Myers, chief executive officer of the weather forecasting company AccuWeather, to be administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Should Myers be confirmed by the Senate, he will head the $5.7 billion agency, which is vital to the U.S. weather forecasting industry, operates an expansive infrastructure for environmental observations, and supports a $500 million portfolio in weather, climate, water, and oceans research.

Myers’ nomination follows the Oct. 5 Senate confirmation of former Navy Oceanographer and retired Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet as NOAA deputy administrator. Trump has also nominated Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics, for a senior NOAA role overseeing the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).

Myers’ selection has drawn some controversy. The first pick for the top NOAA job from the private sector, he has no formal scientific training and little experience with oceans stewardship or fisheries management. And his background with a company that has interests and profits at stake in NOAA decision-making has raised concerns about conflicts of interest.

However, at recent congressional hearings, Myers has recognized the importance of science to NOAA’s mission and the broader U.S. weather enterprise, and he has in particular cited weather R&D as a “core” and “urgent” NOAA function.

Myers’ lack of scientific background questioned

Since his nomination was announced a number of NOAA community leaders have questioned whether Myers is qualified for the position, citing his lack of scientific background.

Dan Sobien, the head of the NWS employees union, wrote in a letter to the Senate committee responsible for considering Myers’ nomination that he is unqualified for “a job traditionally filled by a pre-eminent scientist” and lacks “any background in oceans, research, fisheries, and environmental satellites, which constitute a majority of NOAA’s programs and budget…

Myers has an undergraduate degree in business and economics from Penn State University and a J.D. from Boston University but no science degrees, a break from recent NOAA administrators. However, there is precedent for a non-scientist in the administrator position. Richard Frank, a lawyer who was NOAA administrator under the Carter administration, did not have a science degree either.

Richard Spinrad, who was NOAA’s chief scientist under the Obama administration, told FYI he believes it is essential for the administrator to have scientific training, saying:

NOAA is a science-based environmental agency. Myers is neither a scientist nor an environmentalist. … Gallaudet and Jacobs bring technical savvy to the organization, but without the knowledge of how research is undertaken and applied … Myers will be like a student pilot put into the cockpit of a jet fighter.

Retired Rear Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, who served as NOAA administrator under the George W. Bush administration and currently serves on the AccuWeather Board of Directors, is unconcerned, telling FYI that Myers would have a robust technical and scientific team around him:

The previously announced NOAA appointees of Tim Gallaudet and Neil Jacobs together with Barry form a well-rounded, knowledgeable leadership team with great potential.

Gallaudet and Jacobs have Ph.D.s in oceanography and numerical modeling, respectively, and Jacobs has also been leading a much publicized effort at Panasonic Avionics to develop a global weather model that can outperform the NWS’s flagship Global Forecast System. In addition, Myers’ brother, Joel Myers, who founded AccuWeather in State College, Pennsylvania, in 1962, holds a Ph.D. in meteorology. As administrator, Myers would also have the authority to appoint a NOAA chief scientist.

Myers a likely champion for open data, weather research

Another point of controversy is that Myers advocates eliminating the role of NWS in routine weather forecasting and communications to the public in order to make room for the private sector, including AccuWeather. He and his brother have also called for a consolidation of the over 120 NWS local forecast offices into a central national hub to streamline operations and communications. This would leave NWS focused on “core functions” including infrastructure and modeling, the provision of weather data, and the issuance of public warnings.

In order to ensure the free flow of NOAA data and information throughout the U.S. weather enterprise, Myers has pushed for a “free and open data” model. He stated in 2016 that adopting such a model is key to strengthening science at NOAA:

Success [in weather forecasting] requires honesty of data, transparency of data, and following the scientific method, thereby enabling all in science to have the data, not just output and products, in complete and real time form. … We need to develop creative solutions and more cooperative approaches to being more transparent, not less, and ensure we are embracing free and open data in all situations.

In congressional testimony, Myers has also often cited weather R&D among NOAA’s “core” functions, and in May 2013 hearing testimony he went further, saying weather R&D is “a matter of national government urgency.” Myers has also frequently credited the U.S. academic research community being “ahead of the rest of the world” as key to the current strength of the U.S. weather enterprise.

Susan Avery, president emerita of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told Weather Underground’s Category 6 blog that Myers will confront a major challenge in overseeing NOAA’s expansive portfolios in oceans, water, and climate research, saying:

He will need to get a good grasp on the scope and importance of NOAA research that is done within the NOAA research laboratories and in conjunctions with partners. The complexity of NOAA’s program is generally underappreciated. ... NOAA is not a small operation, and there’s a lot at stake, at a crucial moment.

Although not a climate change skeptic, Myers has tended not to confront questions related to climate change. Asked at the same May 2013 House hearing about NOAA’s allocation of computing resources between climate and weather prediction, Myers backed a shift toward weather, saying,

I think we need a reallocation between climate and weather resources. I don’t know if I can ascribe reasons as to why we have an imbalance the way we do, and so I am not interested in weighing into a maybe quasi-political debate on climate change and the causes of it. … I think it is perfectly consistent with anyone’s climate position that more money needs to go to weather research.

However, in a response to a set of questions submitted by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) for the same hearing, Myers articulated an understanding of the interconnections between NOAA’s weather and climate research and the importance of supporting both:

Climate and weather are inter-related in various ways. … Based on my interaction with atmospheric scientists of all kinds, it seems to me that we are in a relatively early stage in understanding these relationships in depth. So one can argue research in all of these areas is valuable.

AccuWeather’s official position on global climate change acknowledges human influence on the world’s climate and calls for continuing scientific research.

Myers has served in key NOAA advisory and community roles

Although not a trained meteorologist, Myers is a familiar figure in the weather and climate enterprise. He worked for years as a senior executive at AccuWeather before being named CEO in 2007. He is a fellow and active member of the American Meteorological Society, an AIP member society, and he served in recent years on NOAA’s Environmental Information Services Working Group, a panel of NOAA’s Scientific Advisory Board that provides guidance to NOAA on the provision and accessibility of its environmental datasets.

Through advice to Congress, including witness testimony, Myers made notable contributions to the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, a major law signed this spring that established a comprehensive new weather policy for NOAA. As administrator, one of Myers’ first responsibilities will be to oversee the implementation of this law, the first of its kind since 1992.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will likely delve into these and other issues when it holds Myers’ nomination hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

About the author

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