NOAA’s former chief scientist shared insights on his time at the agency and concerns for scientific endeavors.
Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s former chief scientist, shared his insights on his time at the agency and his concerns for scientific endeavors under the current administration. Here he pauses during training for his walk across the United States. Credit: Rick Spinrad

Walking stick in hand, Rick Spinrad, the former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has averaged 24 kilometers a day on his postretirement 5091 kilometer trek across the country.

Spinrad, 63, who started out from Cape Henlopen, Del., on 5 March, has already hiked 675 kilometers to McKeesport, Pa., east of Pittsburgh, through a “meteorological smorgasbord” of snow, sleet, driving rain, and clear blue skies. He plans to conclude his trek in early October in Newport, Ore.

During the walk, he is reflecting on his time at the agency and what’s happening now with science under the Trump administration.

An Antiscience Attitude

Spinrad says that there is a critical need right now to understand the Earth system well enough to predict its behavior and response to human activity.

However, he worries that the Trump administration’s budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018 will cause that need to go unmet or be delayed. The proposed budget unveiled on 16 March will sharply cut funding for science, including for climate science programs and some Earth observing satellites. Spinrad also worries about attitudes toward science within the administration.

“It’s a code orange,” Spinrad said. “Generally, there’s a strong antiscience attitude within this administration.”

“It’s a code orange,” Spinrad told Eos over hot chocolate in a restaurant in Washington, D. C., on a cold day earlier in his walk.

“Generally, there’s a strong antiscience attitude within this administration. I have heard nothing that suggests support for a scientific agenda,” said Spinrad. He expressed specific concern about some administration appointees “who have clear antiscience agendas” and about proposed drastic cuts to the NOAA budget that include slashing the satellite division by 22% and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research by 26%. Cuts that big are “not something you can recover from,” he said.

However, Spinrad’s concern isn’t yet in the red zone because he has confidence in those who are still working diligently on the scientific agenda in U.S. federal agencies.

Promoting Research at NOAA

A political appointee who retired in December, Spinrad served as NOAA chief scientist for about 2.5 years during the Obama administration. It was his second stint at the agency, where he had served as an assistant administrator from 2003 until 2010.

The highlights of his tenure as chief scientist include a policy to transition research and development output into operations, a strategic research guidance memorandum to help direct future research at NOAA, and a “chief scientist’s annual report,” issued for the first time in December 2016, that not only documents research at the agency but focuses on the beneficial impact of scientific investments on the American public.

Spinrad said he hopes that the Trump administration will maintain the position of chief scientist, which currently is vacant. “Even if the NOAA administrator is an environmental scientist, he/she will never have the bandwidth to focus on just the scientific issues. The administrator needs a trusted agent without a particular agenda or bias, who can advise him/her on strategic scientific issues; that’s what a chief scientist can do,” he told Eos.

Spinrad was vice president for research at Oregon State University in Corvallis from 2010 to 2014, where he earlier had received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in oceanography. Now he lives in Bend, Ore., and his deep ties to that state made it a good end point for the trek.

During his “long walk home,” Spinrad’s wife, Alanna, has helped him travel light by driving him to and from lodgings and helping with other logistics.

Targeting Anything About Climate Change

Spinrad told Eos that he does not believe NOAA is being particularly targeted by the Trump administration at this point “because I don’t think it has risen above the radar.” He said the big targets right now are higher-visibility agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

However, Spinrad does think that anything associated with climate is being targeted. “You can see that everywhere. This administration has a very different view of climate change, climate research, and the need to address the issues associated with climate change,” he said. “I think somebody is probably doing a global search for anything that has climate in the title and saying this is not consistent with administration policies.”

“This sense that you can somehow segregate components of a research portfolio and therefore align the research with some ideology is woefully ignorant of what research is all about.”

Meeting some policy priority by “surgically” removing anything from the budget related to climate change “is neglectful of the fact that so much of climate research, climate observations, is integrally connected with the same observations and research that we would use for weather,” Spinrad noted. He said, for instance, that data collected on sea surface temperature are as valuable for numerical weather prediction as they are for understanding the climate record.

“This sense that you can somehow segregate components of a research portfolio and therefore align the research with some ideology is woefully ignorant of what research is all about,” he said.

Concern About NOAA Satellites

Spinrad acknowledged that there is some validity to the argument that the commercial sector could help to maintain and operate satellite systems for the government. However, he said that because the Trump administration “emphasizes almost exclusively the transactional nature of everything, there is an assumption that as long as it makes good business sense, it’s OK to have commercial entities provide [satellite] data.”

Sometimes it’s not about the return on investment but about protecting lives and property, Spinrad said. “It’s like saying, ‘Would you be comfortable with commercializing the military?’ Of course not,” he commented, adding that Americans want to know that their military forces are aligned with the public interest.

“The same should be true for environmental security,” which satellite observations can help to provide, he continued. “The fact that public safety and the economy are so dependent on environmental factors means that absent the capability to understand and predict the environment, we will suffer both economically and in terms of safety.”

Communicating the Relevance of Science

Spinrad said that the scientific community is partly to blame for an antiscience attitude and potential big budget cuts. “We have benefited from eras of relatively healthy support and felt that the value of what we did was self-evident,” he told Eos.

Rick Spinrad strides through downtown Washington, D. C., on his “long walk home” from Cape Henlopen, Del., to Newport, Ore.
Rick Spinrad strides through downtown Washington, D. C., on his “long walk home” from Cape Henlopen, Del., to Newport, Ore. Credit: Randy Showstack

However, Spinrad urged scientists to become better at explaining the value of their work to the public. He said that in the grand scheme of things, the Earth science research portfolio “is viewed as less relevant to the American public than health care research. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. But I think it is much more relevant than most people think it is. That’s on us to raise the visibility.”

He is hopeful that can happen and that the science will gain more support.

Spinrad also is hopeful about completing his trek. First, though, he needs to recover from plantar fasciitis, a heel pain that has temporarily halted the walk in Pennsylvania. He hopes to resume his walk in a few weeks.

The delay, however, will not keep him from participating in the 22 April March for Science. Spinrad told Eos that he will give a keynote speech at the march in Newport, Ore. “Any pain that I might endure from the hike won’t compare with the suffering that could result from the cuts to research by our federal government,” he said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Former NOAA chief scientist warns of threats to science, Eos, 98, Published on 14 April 2017.

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