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U.S. Oceans Chief Sets Sail

24 September 2008 (All day)
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NOAA

Life at sea. "I eat, breathe, and sleep NOAA," said Lautenbacher of his job, which he'll soon be leaving.

With leaves beginning to fall on the final months of the Bush Administration, another science agency head has announced his resignation. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Director Conrad C. Lautenbacher will be departing at the end of October after 7 years on the job. The retired Navy vice admiral leaves a mixed legacy for science at NOAA, having strengthened certain areas of atmospheric and ocean research while weathering harsh criticism for his management of climate satellites.

Lautenbacher had run an oceans-advocacy organization before coming to NOAA with ambitious goals, some of which he managed to achieve. He helped create a tsunami warning system in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Lautenbacher also assembled an aquaculture research program as well as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, a global network of hundreds of environmental sensors.

Meteorologist John Snow of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, says that Lautenbacher paid close attention to input he received from atmospheric and ocean scientists during his term, including calls to invest more research dollars into predicting hurricane intensity and monitoring and forecasting forest fires. "He's really taken to heart a number of our recommendations," says Snow, who sits on NOAA's science advisory panel. Recently, researchers have welcomed Lautenbacher's proposal for setting up a climate service, akin to the National Weather Service, that would provide forecasts and climate data for local officials and businesses.

But in other areas, the rail-thin administrator has made enemies. Some of his darkest days came while managing the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a $14 billion weather and climate satellite run jointly by NOAA, the Pentagon, and NASA. Delays and cost overruns triggered a mandatory Pentagon review in 2006 that stripped from the system five climate sensors and reduced the number of satellites from seven to five. A 2006 report by the Department of Commerce inspector general on the troubled program faulted NOAA leadership's "poor management oversight" for the program, and Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), who chairs the House Science Committee, called on Lautenbacher to resign. "He inherited a tough program," says Snow. Lautenbacher has not said what he will do after NOAA.