Congress Needs to Carefully Chart NOAA’s Path Forward

April 17, 2023 | 3:08 pm
Rachel Licker
Principal Climate Scientist

In the US, when we check our local weather forecast, when our communities are recovering from an extreme weather event, or when our fisherfolk are at sea catching food, we are benefitting from the work of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA is a science-based agency of the federal government that was created by the executive branch in 1970, bringing together science-based commissions, bureaus and offices the country relied on for years, including what was known as the Weather Bureau, the Fisheries Commission, and the Survey of the Coast office.

Congress is now considering draft legislation that would permanently authorize NOAA. However, the legislation at play includes some big changes and it is the duty of our legislators to make these decisions carefully, ensuring that the future of NOAA is strong.

What is NOAA?

Home to the National Weather Service and NOAA Fisheries, among many other divisions, NOAA plays a critical role in the daily lives and livelihoods of all US residents, as well as in the protection of the ecosystems and planet that we depend on. Created in 1970 by President Nixon, NOAA is housed under the Department of Commerce and is led by a presidentially appointed Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere/NOAA Administrator (currently Administrator Spinrad).

NOAA has three main goals under its mission: “1. To understand and predict changes in climate, weather and coasts; 2. To share that knowledge and information with others; and 3. To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.”

In addition to providing weather forecasts and marine fisheries protections, NOAA plays several other important roles, including researching climate change and developing state of the art climate projections through its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), as well as providing access to global data about many aspects of our environment through the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS).

What is the legislation at hand?

The House of Representatives is considering draft legislation that would formally establish NOAA through what is known as an organic act. Organic acts exist for other parts of our government, such as the National Park Service, but many federal agencies operate without one.  This is not the first time that one has been considered for NOAA. In 1977, Rep. John Murphy of New York introduced such legislation which was never passed. Organic acts can help protect the existence of the institution and also define its scope.

The House draft legislation would lead to some big changes, raising several important questions. Most notably, the House legislation would establish NOAA as an independent agency, removing it from its current home in the Department of Commerce.

The Secretary of Commerce is a cabinet-level position. There is thus a question as to whether the NOAA Administrator would be a part of the President’s cabinet in the way the EPA Administrator is, or whether it would function like NASA, in which the Administrator reports to the President, but may not be involved in regular, core cabinet meetings. It is also unclear whether changing NOAA’s place in the leadership chain would strengthen the agency or make it more exposed to the political whims of different administrations, as has happened to the EPA.

The legislation would also likely lead to reorganization within NOAA. The Office of Space Commerce would likely be removed from NOAA’s jurisdiction and remain in the Department of Commerce. The legislation also sets forth a study about transferring all or part of the management of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which would in effect transfer NOAA Fisheries to the Department of Interior. This raises important questions about impacts the proposal could have on federal management of vital fisheries resources as well as other parts of the agency. Would it lead to any other offices being moved, removed, or consolidated?

Finally, it’s important to consider what implications the legislation would have for NOAA’s funding if, for example, there is any reorganization.

What additional information should be considered

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is holding a hearing about this draft legislation on Tuesday, April 18. While critical voices are on the docket (former NOAA Administrator Dr. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, and two former Acting Administrators, Dr. Tim Gallaudet, and Dr. Neil Jacobs), each of these individuals served under Republican administrations. Input from a broader sampling of current and former NOAA leadership, as well as perspectives from the scientific community and other stakeholders at the federal, state, and local level, must be sought out.

A discussion of ways to strengthen NOAA is welcome, and deliberating the way a government is organized is a part of any healthy democracy. However, it is vital that the deliberation about NOAA is complete and weighs the pros, cons, and potential unintended consequences of any changes. Furthering the critical role NOAA scientists play in predicting and responding to climate change should be central to any plans for the future of the agency.

Since we all depend on NOAA in our daily lives, it is in all of our best interests to ensure that it is a robust and well-supported agency and insist that any changes to it are deeply considered. The future of NOAA should be about continuing to achieve its critical science-driven mission in service of the public interest.

About the author

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Rachel Licker is principal climate scientist with the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In her role, she provides strategic thinking and technical and analytical expertise across the organization, analyzes new developments in climate science, and communicates climate science to policymakers, the public, and the media.