Oregon State's Jane Lubchenco Takes Over at NOAA,
by Matthew Preusch
Oregon marine biologist Jane Lubchenco recently assumed the helm of the federal agency that strives to explain our world "from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun."
Sounds big. Then consider also that Lubchenco is now among the top federal scientists responsible for framing the challenges of climate change to her new boss, President Barack Obama.
"I'm on a very steep learning curve," Lubchenco, a faculty member at Oregon State University, said in a recent interview with The Oregonian. "But it's just such a wonderful opportunity given the extent to which the president has signaled that he values the science and he thinks NOAA is important."
Earlier this month, Lubchenco was sworn in beside White House science adviser John P. Holdren to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The post can be seen as the culmination of her career -- evolving from private scientist to public advocate. It's a career in which she strives to combine the two without sacrificing the rigors of science.
In her three decades at OSU, she has gone from wading through tide pools to heading the American Association for the Advancement of Science and winning a MacArthur "genius" grant, among other honors.
But her message to those in power, whether about ocean ecosystems or the climate, always was simple: Things are changing, we often are causing those changes, and those changes will have a dramatic impact of our lives and the environment that we rely on.
Now she is among the powerful, a key adviser and agency head in an administration whose early actions depart from those of the Bush era in emphasizing the realities of a warming planet and our role in that warming.
Whether that shift will translate into policies or actions that could reduce or slow the buildup of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere remains to be seen. But simply having Lubchenco in office has heartened and excited climate experts and activists.
"It's absolutely marvelous, because you are actually now going to have a scientist who is paying attention to science running NOAA, which is the central agency in the federal government for tracking climate change," said former Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, who has spent the past few years giving scores of presentations on warming as a foot soldier for Al Gore's group, The Climate Project.
Lubchenco said Obama told her that climate change and economic development should be her agency's top priorities. On top of those are NOAA's traditional responsibilities of forecasting weather and overseeing oceans and fisheries, of particular interest to the Northwest and its endangered salmon runs.
Lubchenco is pushing the creation of a climate service akin to the National Weather Service that would provide predictions on the changing climate.
In Oregon, such forecasts could be used by utilities in deciding where to put a wind farm; foresters wondering where fires and bug outbreaks will intensify; and water managers planning for future demand.
"One of my major concerns," Lubchenco told The Oregonian 15 years ago, "is that humans are changing the environment faster than our ability to understand the implications of the ways in which we are changing it."
A climate service seems a logical answer to such concerns, and it fits with her long fight to get scientists, who thrive in exploring the universe's uncertainties, to state clearly to the public what is certain.
"Scientists are focused on the cutting edge," she said. "Part of the scientific process, though, is taking stock of what is known. That's where federal agencies have a key role to play, in cataloging, synthesizing, integrating that information."
And how the new NOAA administrator chooses to play that role could have real, immediate impacts. A federal judge in Portland reviewing NOAA's plan to reconcile federal hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers with declining salmon runs questioned whether her new agency previously disregarded its own scientists.
Lubchenco said it was too early in her tenure to comment on specific parts of salmon recovery.
"I guess I can simply say that we will be revisiting a number of different policies and asking, 'Are they really consistent with the best possible science?'" she said.
She is an advocate for the idea that by serving the environment, we serve ourselves, at least in the long term. It's a nuanced position to maintain in Washington D.C., however, and not one suited to sound bites.
But after three decades at OSU studying the oceans, Lubchenco appreciates the complexity of something so seemingly small as a tide pool, how the interplay of species and influences can be beyond our ability to fully understand.
It is a skill that could come in handy considering the complexity of a government agency with 12,500 employees and a $4 billion annual budget, about half of the entire Department of Commerce.
"As a scientist, I've always enjoyed the discovery part of science: how things work and how they are changing. And that's true for learning about a tide pool or a government agency," she said. But, she added, "if I look at a tide pool, I'm just studying it. If I look at NOAA, I have a responsibility to lead it."
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