|Above: Barry Myers (left), the chief executive officer of AccuWeather, and Jon Kirchner, president of GeoOptics, appear before a House Science Subcommittee on May 23, 2013, in Washington, DC. The committee was hearing testimony on weather forecasting in the United States. Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images.|
On Wednesday, October 11, the White House announced President Donald Trump’s intent to nominate Barry Lee Myers for the dual post of NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, Department of Commerce.
Myers is the first person from private industry nominated to head NOAA in the agency’s 46-year history. Prior to being named chief executive officer of AccuWeather in 2007, Myers served as the company’s executive vice president and general counsel. He has been “an integral part and leading force of AccuWeather executive management since shortly after the company’s founding,” according to a company news release. AccuWeather was founded in 1962 by Myers’s brother, meteorologist Joel Myers.
Myers holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics from Penn State and a law degree from the University of Boston. He is deeply familiar with issues involving public-private interactions in meteorology, owing in large part to his company’s wide-ranging weather forecasting activities. Myers also served for a number of years on the Environmental Information Services Working Group of NOAA’s Science Advisory Board.
In 2014, Myers received the Kenneth C. Spengler Award from the American Meteorological Society, an award that pays tribute to individuals who have fostered growth and worked to create synergies within the weather and climate enterprise. The AMS recognized Myers for “outstanding, highly principled leadership of the American weather industry over five decades and fostering strong cooperation between private sector and government weather services.”
Going beyond weather
Myers does not have an extensive background in NOAA’s wide-ranging mission areas outside of meteorology, including its oceanic elements—sometimes referred to as the “wet side.” Most of the ten prior NOAA administrators had either master’s or doctoral degrees in some form of Earth science. The only one who had no postgraduate background in science was Richard Frank, a lawyer nominated by the Carter administration who served from 1977 to 1981.
Myers’s background includes both strengths and gaps, according to physicist Susan Avery, president emerita of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and former head of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science. “[Myers] has management and leadership experience in a major weather company that should be helpful, and he has a legal background that could be useful in dealing with the many policy and compliance issues in NOAA’s portfolio,” said Avery in an email. She noted that Myers would be in charge of a broad set of activities and resources that range well beyond meteorology, including fishery and coastal zone management, the agency’s fleet of ships and buoys, and climate change adaptation and resilience.
“[Myers] will need to get a good grasp on the scope and importance of NOAA research that is done within the NOAA research laboratories and in conjunction with partners,” Avery said. “The complexity of NOAA’s program is generally underappreciated….NOAA is not a small operation, and there’s a lot at stake, at a crucial moment.”
How would the National Weather Service fare?
Clifford Mass (University of Washington) sees the potential for a federal-government newcomer to make significant changes to NOAA’s activities in computer-based (numerical) weather prediction, a topic he covered in an October 8 blog post.
“Is it possible that an outsider from the private sector might consider a fresh approach and finally deal with the problems that have festered for the past quarter-century?” said Mass in an email. “One can imagine bringing numerical weather prediction research and operations together into one group, pruning NOAA’s overgrown collection of models, truly engaging with the research community and private sector, and fostering the use of private sector observations and modeling. From my interactions with Barry Myers, I believe he is open to change and has a good understanding of the weather prediction community. Since he comes from a business background, he will need the assistance of lieutenants with strong technical knowledge to make the necessary improvements.”
If Myers were to adhere closely to past positions, some functions of the National Weather Service could go by the wayside. Myers has long maintained that the public-facing roles of the NWS—such as everyday weather forecasts, websites, and social media products—should be kept to a minimum. In a statement before Congress on private sector weather forecasting in 2016, Myers said: “The best public facing forecasts and information comes from the weather industry and the best atmospheric research is in the academic research community. The nation should be proud of that. The nation should also support the core missions of NOAA and our National Weather Service. We need quality shared data, support for the development of top notch models, and the best severe weather warnings.”
As noted by Capital Weather Gang, Barry and Joel Myers both contributed in 2005 to the campaign of then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who introduced legislation designed to reduce government competition with private weather services. The National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005 did not succeed, but its apparent goal was to limit public-facing NWS products to severe weather forecasts and warnings. Much of the content now available on NWS websites and social media channels would fall outside this mandate, including hundreds of enormously popular Twitter feeds and Facebook sites developed through the initiative of staff at local NWS offices over the past decade.
The NWS labor union (the National Weather Service Employees Organization) has made no secret of its opposition to a Myers appointment, as reported by Capital Weather Gang in May when it became evident that Myers was a front runner for the post.
Two other high-level NOAA nominations have been announced in recent weeks, both of whom have Ph.D.-level backgrounds in relevant science:
—Rear Admiral Tim Galludet (ret.), former oceanographer of the U.S. Navy, for assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere
—Dr. Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corp., for assistant secretary of commerce, environmental observation and prediction.
Commentary from Bob Henson and Dr. Jeff Masters: The big picture
(Disclaimer: AccuWeather is a competitor of The Weather Company, the owner of Weather Underground.)
The United States has a unique weather enterprise, with large, robust communities in the private, public, and academic spheres. The Senate confirmation process for Barry Myers merits special attention, in part because it would involve putting the NWS under the leadership of an entrepreneur whose company has long sought to move certain NWS activities from the public into the private sector. Similar issues could have arisen had the nominee been a long-time high-ranking staff member from The Weather Company or from some other large private firm in the earth sciences. With any such nominee, the potential for conflicts of interest in both domestic and international activities must be dealt with openly and transparently.
There is already an internal proposal on the drawing board for an NWS reorganization, and the agency might well benefit from a thoughtful retooling. However, any major chopping-block-style reduction of NWS services would be corrosive to employee morale and initiative, qualities that are sorely needed for an innovative work force.
Our own chief concern with any candidate for incoming NOAA administrator has been whether that nominee can protect the agency from the winds of climate-change denial sweeping through the Trump administration. Given the denial and downplaying of well-established climate change science exhibited by Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, and other members of the Trump administration—and the degradation of public-oriented materials on the EPA website—it is critical to preserve NOAA’s strengths in carrying out climate research and communicating the state of the science accurately and completely.
Myers has not been asked by journalists to comment extensively on climate change. At a 2013 House hearing, in response to a question from Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) on whether NOAA computer resources ought to be shifted from climate analysis toward weather prediction, Myers declined to affirm the anthropogenic (human-caused) foundation of recent global climate change, which has been established through exhaustive research. “I agree that I think we need a reallocation between climate and weather resources,” Myers said. “I don’t know if I can ascribe reasons as to why we have an imbalance the way we do, and so I am not interested in weighing into a maybe quasi-political debate on climate change and the causes of it.”
Similarly, AccuWeather’s position statement on global climate change (scroll down the linked page to find the statement) has steered clear of discussing the anthropogenic basis for climate change. As of October 11, 2017, the statement omitted any mention of human-produced greenhouse gases. It did not acknowledge the global-scale warming that’s been observed and is projected to increase, nor such well-established impacts as hydrologic extremes, sea ice loss, and intensified heat waves.
We agree wholeheartedly with Myers on the importance of shared weather data, world-leading models, and unparalleled severe weather warnings. There is room for improvement in all of these high-priority areas, and Myers could do much to advance them. We believe there are additional priorities as well—most crucially, understanding human-driven changes to our atmosphere and informing society about them. NOAA plays a unique and vital role in this profound endeavor, and if Myers is to lead the agency, it behooves him to convince us, and the U.S. Senate, that he will fight to defend that role. As former AMS president Marshall Shepherd (University of Georgia) said in a May interview, “The head of NOAA has to be a voice for climate change and climate science in an era where it feels like it is under attack.”
Dr. Jeff Masters co-authored this post.