Published online 24 March 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/458396a

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NOAA chief ready to tackle climate

Jane Lubchenco takes the helm at oceanic and atmospheric agency.

Jane Lubchenco has been confirmed as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.A. Gea/Reuters

A little more than a decade ago, ecologist Jane Lubchenco set out to train scientists how to communicate with non-scientific audiences and thus create better national environmental policy. The Aldo Leopold Leadership Program has since become one of the most respected training programmes for senior scientists.

Now, after guiding more than 100 researchers through the treacherous waters of congressional relations, Lubchenco is putting her own advice into practice as the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Confirmed by the US Senate on 19 March, along with John Holdren as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Lubchenco takes the helm of a US$4.4-billion agency charged with overseeing research and monitoring in fields from marine mammal populations to climate change.

Lubchenco, the first woman to head NOAA, is going through a series of detailed briefings to get her up to speed on the agency's many doings. But she is already speaking in generalities about her priorities. "NOAA has a very distinguished track record of science," she says. "We're going to build on that track record and use the science that we produce to serve the nation." Her wish list is nothing if not ambitious: she says she wants to "solve the overfishing problem", put the agency's earth-monitoring satellites programme back on track, establish a National Climate Service to provide climate-related data to users, and "protect and restore ocean ecosystems".

"She is one of the best scientists to give advice to Obama, arguing with the Larry Summerses of the administration and their economic theories," says Stephen Schneider, a climatologist who directs Stanford University's Center for Environmental Science and Policy in California, and who has been a long-standing adviser to the Leopold programme.

A marine tidal specialist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Lubchenco has for decades shared research, training and a lab with her biologist husband, Bruce Menge. "They are very different," Schneider says. "Jane cruises the Black Sea now with archbishops discussing stewardship of the planet. Bruce prefers to head to the reefs to count species."

“NOAA is like city states where people don't talk to each other.”


Lubchenco has, in fact, long juggled research, policy and activism, and her long list of accomplishments includes past presidencies of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Ecological Society of America. She has not, however, ever run a major governmental agency or facility.

Karina Nielsen, of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, was inspired to become a marine ecologist when she read quotes attributed to Lubchenco in an undergraduate biology textbook. Eventually, she received her doctorate in the Lubchenco/Menge lab. "They have an incredible vision of letting students be creative," she says. "You make mistakes, but you learn how to do excellent science. Encouraging creativity is the hallmark of their lab." For example, Nielsen's doctoral thesis challenged a widely held view that intertidal basins blossomed with life based mainly on the upwelling of basic nutrients.

"Jane is a pioneer woman in science — a role model combining quality research and leadership," says Lisa Curran, an ecologist at Yale University and a Leopold fellow. The Leopold training helped in fighting the timber industry to establish the Center for Tropical Forest Science site in Borneo, Curran says. "I became much more confident speaking", and was able to present publicly as more than just a scientist "with dirty dresses and leech bites".

Now, about 20 Leopold fellows are trained in two week-long sessions, one of which is in Washington DC and includes visits to Congress. From the start, Lubchenco envisioned it as a programme to stretch across environmental disciplines and push boundaries. "I was included in the first cohort, I think, because I'm an ecologist who studies infectious diseases," says Andrew Dobson of Princeton University in New Jersey. "It taught me to be really organized, to get my ideas across clearly."

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The Leopold training was even helpful for seasoned veterans of political skirmishes such as Barry Noon, a modeller at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who served as a main governmental witness when the timber industry sought to cut old-growth forest in the northwestern United States, including habitat of the northern spotted owl. "I was always disappointed in my testimony, feeling I could have done better," he says. Years later, when he did the Leopold fellowship, he realized how such training could have helped.

Lubchenco will have plenty of chances to use her well-honed communications skills. On the question of overfishing, for example, industry groups have been wary of her pro-environment stance in the past. As administrator, she acknowledges the competing priorities. "The health of fish stocks is directly related to the health of many coastal communities, and we need to find a way forward that balances all of the different concerns," she says. "It will be a very tough challenge, but it is doable and we must do it." 

Click here for a Q&A with Jane Lubchenco.

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