WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday confirmed Rick Spinrad as the next leader of the National and Atmospheric Administration. Spinrad, an ocean scientist nominated on April 24 by President Joe Biden, becomes the 11th administrator in the agency’s history.
“I am thrilled to be back and am ready to hit the ground running,” Spinrad said in a NOAA news release. “I am humbled to lead NOAA’s exceptional workforce on a mission so relevant to the daily lives of people across America and to the future health of our planet. And I will ensure that trust and scientific integrity will continue to be the foundation for all of our work.”
The NOAA release lists Spinrad’s top three priorities as he takes the helm at the agency: 1) developing products and services to support climate change work inside the agency and with its Federal and non-Federal partners, 2) building programs and policies that enhance environmental sustainability and foster economic development and 3) creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
Spinrad becomes the agency’s first Senate-confirmed administrator since Kathryn Sullivan, who served under President Barack Obama into 2017.
Spinrad, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, served as chief scientist at NOAA under Obama and before that led the agency’s research arm and ocean service. He has also held ocean leadership positions in the Navy.
Named on Earth Day to lead the agency, Spinrad has been a champion of funding research to advance the understanding of climate change, a top priority of the Biden White House.
Spinrad continues the long-standing tradition of scientists selected to run the agency, which has responsibilities stretching from the sea floor to low Earth orbit. Every past NOAA administrator but one – attorney Richard Frank, who served from 1977 to 1981 – has held science degrees.
President Donald Trump nominated a nonscientist, Barry Myers, to run the agency, but the businessman and lawyer was never granted a vote in the Senate and later withdrew for health reasons.
Trump then nominated Neil Jacobs, an atmospheric scientist, but he also never received a Senate vote and led the agency only in an acting capacity.
The agency, whose budget has stagnated for the past decade, has a diverse, complex and demanding portfolio. It oversees the National Weather Service, conducts and funds weather and climate research, and operates a constellation of weather satellites as well as a climate data center. It also has responsibilities in monitoring and protecting the nation’s coasts, oceans and fisheries.
Leading an organization the size of NOAA, with about 11,000 employees, will be a first for Spinrad, as will be overseeing a budget of around $5 billion, which may swell to $6.9 billion if Biden’s request to increase spending is approved by Congress.
Spinrad will face numerous challenges that include improving the agency’s flagship weather prediction system, which lags behind its counterparts in Europe, launching a new generation of weather satellites, and upgrading the National Weather Service’s aging and declining information technology infrastructure.
His work also probably will involve addressing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, marine litter and ocean plastics, the health of corals, and keeping fisheries sustainable, while advancing the nation’s “blue economy” of goods and services the oceans provide to coastal communities.
The agency is expected to face scrutiny over its lack of gender and racial diversity, particularly with Spinrad, who is a White man, at the helm. A report from the House Science Committee published in March found that NOAA employed almost three male scientists for every woman in 2020. African Americans are deeply underrepresented. Just under 4 percent of the agency’s scientists are Black, and 1.3 percent are Black women.
Spinrad probably will be tasked with addressing a “brain drain” at the agency. A House Science Committee report documented a 9 percent decrease in NOAA’s workforce over the past decade.
Restoring the agency’s reputation and staff morale represent another area needing attention, according to people close to the agency. Both took a hit due to a scandal known as “Sharpiegate,” involving the former president’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian was going to strike Alabama, as well as the appointment of two climate science skeptics to senior positions in the waning days of the Trump administration.
“After four years of neglect and denial of science, 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 at the Environmental Defense Fund, who worked at NOAA during the Obama administration, wrote in an email.
Because NOAA falls within the Commerce Department and lacks independence, Spinrad will need to deftly navigate the sprawling bureaucracy to be effective, agency insiders say. On the climate issue in particular, he faces the challenge of coordinating with every Cabinet-level agency and the White House, and working under the leadership of Gina McCarthy, White House climate czar, on domestic issues, and John F. Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, on international activities.