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America’s Oldest Science Agency Gets a Facelift

AIBS Washington Watch, November 2004

Adrienne Froelich Sponberg

With an annual research budget of approximately $600 million (including $150 million for extramural research), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is one of the government’s largest supporters of environmental research. It’s also the oldest: By executive order in 1970, the long-established US Coast and Geodetic Survey (formed in 1807), the Weather Bureau (1870), and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (1871) were combined, earning the resulting organization the title of "America’s oldest science agency."

And with age comes the need for maintenance and repair. NOAA, and in particular its research programs, has recently come under fire: Congressional appropriators say the agency is too fragmented, and both the Pew Oceans Commission and the US Commission on Ocean Policy made recommendations for streamlining NOAA. Rear Admiral Richard West, president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE), recently told a House science subcommittee that many of NOAA’s organizational challenges stem from the way in which NOAA "was assembled from existing federal marine, weather and atmospheric entities, then awkwardly placed within the Department of Commerce." As a result, West argues, "NOAA became the uneasy sum of several competent, yet independent-minded organizations that still have not melded into a single cohesive agency."

In addition to organizational difficulties, NOAA faces "problems [that] are different—harder to solve," according to D. James Baker, administrator of NOAA from 1993 to 2001. Those problems also seem to have gotten bigger. NOAA has taken on lead roles in two major government-wide research initiatives: the Climate Change Science Program and the Global Earth Observing System of Systems. To tackle those challenges, Baker says the agency "needs to change with the times."

NOAA took the first step toward change by commissioning a Research Review Team to assess the agency’s research programs and recommend ways to enhance NOAA’s research organization and connection to operational activities. The move was a response to language in the fiscal year 2004 House and Senate Appropriations Committee reports that "explicitly challenged the organization of research in NOAA’s primary research office and implicitly raised the issue of how should research best serve NOAA and the nation."

The review team issued its draft report in January and the final report in August. Foremost among the team’s 11 major recommendations was the call for development of 5- and 20-year research plans. The report warned that the lack of a research strategy "contributes significantly to a severe communication problem between NOAA and Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the external community." NOAA responded quickly to the draft report, releasing in August a draft 5-year research plan and a 20-year research vision for public comment.

Citing "ample evidence that NOAA as a whole has suffered from not having a clear and forceful research voice," the team also recommended that NOAA establish a new position: associate administrator for research. "Creating a senior leadership position…would be a step toward finding the needed voice for research." The associate administrator would report directly to the NOAA administrator, would have budget authority for research across NOAA, and would articulate research goals and objectives for NOAA.

NOAA also received poor marks for the administration of its extramural research program. The review team stated that there was a "lack of understanding for the necessity of extramural research in support of the NOAA mission." Noting complaints from the external community that the current granting process is "inconsistent and fragmented," the team recommended that NOAA adopt "a single application process, consistent review procedures, and more consistent timing for extramural grant fund availability." These steps would help counter external researchers’ perception that there are "too many announcements for too little money."

West agrees that NOAA needs to work on its relationship with the external community. "Community support through interaction and regular contact with external constituencies is essential to the effectiveness of the agency. Numerous studies have recognized the NOAA–university partnership as a principal means to forge that connection."

Between the research review, the ocean commission reports, and the numerous bills since introduced in Congress, NOAA has its hands full. Luckily, however, there is significant overlap in the recommendations. Berrien Moore, who chaired the review team, said the team’s recommendations mirror those of the US Commission on Ocean Policy: "increasing the national level of coordination and planning for science, strengthening cooperation between agencies,…leveraging programs across agencies, and streamlining internal processes." The near future should bring much change and new challenges for NOAA. As noted in the research review, however, "with change, there is opportunity."

Adrienne Froelich Sponberg (e-mail: ) is director of the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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