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Biden Taps A Former Top Scientist At NOAA To Lead The Weather And Climate Agency

President Biden is nominating Rick Spinrad to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government's premier agency on climate science which oversees the National Weather Service.

Prior to his current role as a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, Spinrad served as NOAA's top scientist under President Obama and the U.S. representative to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

The nomination comes at a difficult moment in NOAA's history. The agency has been without an official, Senate-confirmed leader since former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, after his two nominees to lead the agency failed to garner enough support to win a full vote before the Senate.

If Spinrad manages to win over the Senate, he will have to contend with a challenge beyond the agency's already-rigorous scientific mandate: restoring public confidence in a traditionally apolitical agency marred by political scandal.

In September 2019, then-President Trump wrongly said Alabama was in the projected path of Hurricane Dorian. He continued to reassert the claim for several days, including during an Oval Office briefing on the storm — in which he displayed what appeared to be an official National Weather Service map in which the storm's projected path was extended to Alabama by someone using a black marker.

After a National Weather Service office in Birmingham put out a tweetcorrectly stating that Alabama would not feel the effects of the storm, NOAA published an unsigned defenseof the president's claims and rebuking its professional staff who posted the message.

Dan Sobien, then-president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said at the time that "the hard working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management."

If confirmed, Spinrad will lead a 12,000-person agency charged with a diverse portfolio that spans daily weather forecasts, climate monitoring, fisheries management and coastal restoration.

In a statement, the Environmental Defense Fund's Eric Schwaab applauded Spinrad's nomination, saying that NOAA's workers "couldn't ask for a better leader to restore scientific integrity and honor the agency's mission."

Biden, whose administration has made climate action a central focus, has proposed the largest budget in NOAA's history — $6.9 billion, a $1.5 billion increase over the 2021 budget allocated by Congress. It remains to be seen whether Congress will agree to the increase.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.