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Case for Making NOAA an Independent Agency Examined by Science Committee

APR 27, 2023
House Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) convened a hearing last week to build support for his proposal to remove the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Commerce Department and make it an independent agency. Committee Democrats did not take a firm stance on the idea, seeking additional perspectives.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics

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A sculpture in front of NOAA’s headquarters in Maryland. (Image credit – Adam Fagen, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

House Science Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) advanced his push to make the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration an independent agency at a hearing last week featuring three former heads of the agency: Conrad Lautenbacher, Tim Gallaudet, and Neil Jacobs. All three served during Republican administrations and testified forcefully in favor of freeing NOAA from supervision by the Commerce Department, which it has been under for its half-century of existence.

Lucas argued in his opening statement that NOAA is a vital agency undermined by its place in the federal government and the absence of a single statute authorizing its existence and core policies, known as an organic act. “NOAA exists through a patchwork of roughly 200 statutes that have resulted in an agency with complex organizational challenges and, at times, an ill-defined mission,” he said, noting legislation the committee is developing aims to rectify the situation.

Committee Democrats expressed openness to NOAA independence but did not commit to supporting Lucas’ push. In her opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) cautioned that more than a dozen previous attempts to pass an organic act for NOAA failed and said, “The draft we’re discussing is a very good start, and already reflects some bipartisan discussions at the staff level. I commit to continuing to work with the chairman on this.”

Lofgren also noted that Lucas had tried to find a head of NOAA from a Democratic administration to testify but that none were available. She asked Lucas to hold additional hearings with a range of stakeholders, including ones who oppose NOAA independence, to gather a fuller set of viewpoints.

Witnesses sharply criticize Commerce Department management of NOAA

Lautenbacher reflected that passing an organic act had been one of his top priorities when he led NOAA under President George W. Bush and that he had testified before the committee on the topic 17 years ago. “I am back again, to press you on this need one more time,” he said.

He and the other two witnesses agreed that working within the Commerce Department had frequently inhibited NOAA’s functioning. Gallaudet and Jacobs, who each acted as head of NOAA for periods during the Trump administration, testified that decisions requiring departmental input resulted in long delays to various activities and initiatives.

“Everything we did — from a potential all-hands email, to a spend plan, to budget approval — had to go through several different layers in the Department of Commerce, and it’s usually being reviewed by people that don’t really understand NOAA’s mission and they don’t really have the scientific expertise. That’s not their job. … To me, it just felt very unnecessary, and we had to spend a lot of time rewriting and explaining stuff that was just honestly kind of a waste of resources,” Jacobs said.

Gallaudet agreed, remarking, “Paying the Department of Commerce to ineptly duplicate NOAA’s own management system makes no business sense.” He added that NOAA is in “chronic conflict” with the department due to their differing priorities, which he argued resulted in “poorly crafted and sometimes damaging decisions.”

Gallaudet accused the department of what he called the “egregious extraction” of NOAA funding to support other activities, which he said was a particular problem when additional money was needed for the decennial U.S. census. “The only way NOAA could cope with such high budget cuts was to delay critical upgrades to environmental satellites and other major programs,” he said.

Asked by Lucas to weigh the downsides of association with the Commerce Department against the upsides, Gallaudet said he would be “hard-pressed” to think of any upsides. Jacobs allowed that the department had supported NOAA in an interagency dispute over the potential interference of telecommunications equipment with weather observations but added that “the downside list would be pretty extensive.”

Democrats ask if independent NOAA would be safer from political pressure

Reps. Paul Tonko (D-NY), Sean Casten (D-IL), and Jennifer McClellan (D-VA) all asked how NOAA can best protect the integrity of its science in the face of political pressure. Tonko noted he has proposed legislation to strengthen agencies’ scientific integrity policies and expressed appreciation for Lucas having broached the subject of scientific integrity in his draft legislation.

Tonko and Casten also directly raised the 2019 “Sharpiegate” scandal, in which Commerce Department officials pressured Jacobs to issue a statement apparently rebuking NOAA forecasters who had inadvertently contradicted a social media message from President Donald Trump about Hurricane Dorian.

Jacobs called the incident a “horrible situation” and recounted that NOAA rewrote its scientific integrity policy in the wake of it, saying the new policy represents a “gold standard” for science agencies. However, he stressed it can still only be enforced within the agency. “There is absolutely nothing NOAA can do, even no matter how great their scientific integrity policy is, to enforce it upwards to the Department of Commerce,” he lamented.

While Jacobs asserted that independence would help insulate NOAA from political pressure, Casten challenged him on the point, arguing there are ways to exert political pressure even on agencies that are not considered part of a presidential administration.

Jacobs countered that, even though he was a Senate-confirmed official, he was subject to pressure from political appointees in the Commerce Department who were not Senate-confirmed. “I feel like there’s layers of these Schedule C political staffers that really exert a lot more authority than they should have. And maybe it’s delegated to them … but to me that seems like something that you wouldn’t see if NOAA was independent,” he said.

Gallaudet advocates for NOAA absorbing parts of other science agencies

Some committee members probed how independence would affect NOAA’s ability to thrive as an agency.

Lofgren, for instance, noted that NOAA’s $6 billion budget accounts for roughly half of the entire Commerce Department budget but is still smaller than the budgets of existing independent agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation. “How would NOAA fare in the appropriations process here in Congress relative to the other independent agencies?” she asked.

Gallaudet replied that he did not think NOAA would be subject to budget cuts and might even be in a position to boost its funding by absorbing programs from other agencies. “I see the U.S. Geological Survey has coastal programs, science programs that are redundant with NOAA’s and should be consolidated, I think, in America’s top ocean agency. The same goes for climate modeling in the Department of Energy and some of the Earth-observation missions in NASA.”

While Lofgren reflected that agencies such as USGS would defend their expertise, Gallaudet persisted, saying, “NOAA, ma’am, is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and USGS is the U.S. Geological Survey. I see many USGS scientists with ‘marine biologist’ in their title, so to me there’s a disconnect.”

NOAA brand suffers under Commerce, witnesses argue

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A Hurricane Hunter aircraft with both the NOAA logo and the Commerce Department name painted on the side. To avoid brand confusion, NOAA recently repainted these aircraft to remove the reference to the department. (Image credit – NOAA)

Another focus of discussion was how NOAA’s ability to promote its “brand” might be improved as an independent agency. Jacobs noted NOAA has a much weaker brand than NASA despite the similarity of some of their functions. Arguing that NOAA has struggled to establish an identity apart from the Commerce Department, he remarked, “This may seem like a trivial issue, but in my opinion, it’s the single most important thing driving NOAA’s future budgets and workforce recruitment.”

Rep. Scott Franklin (R-FL), who represents Lakeland, Florida, where NOAA’s Hurricane Hunter aircraft are stationed, returned to the issue of recruiting, noting it was only recently that the words “Department of Commerce” were removed from the airplanes’ sides. Jacobs said it was a good example, observing that NOAA’s exposure to the public and the press is greatest around the Hurricane Hunters and the National Hurricane Center. “These are the facilities, particularly in Lakeland, where kids will go on field trips and visit. … I think that’s really important,” he remarked.

Joining the thread of discussion, Gallaudet suggested the goal should be to put NOAA “on par with NASA” in the public consciousness, which would help it recruit new talent. Gallaudet also argued that policymakers and the public should better recognize the importance of NOAA’s mission, pointing as an example to its lead role in ocean exploration.

“Less is known about the world’s oceans than the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. This is concerning because the marine environment is as important, if not more, than space in the everyday lives of American citizens,” he remarked. “Again, if we can make NOAA independent and put NOAA on par with NASA, they’ll be able to do more good for all of American citizens.”

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