Jane Lubchenco is the new administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a 12,500-employee, $4.4-billion agency in charge of most things sea and air. On 23 March, her first business day after being sworn in for the job, she spoke to Nature reporter Alexandra Witze and Science reporter Eli Kintisch about where she hopes to take the agency. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Jane Lubchenco

What are your top priorities as you take over the agency?

Clearly, science is a priority for me. NOAA has a very distinguished track record of science; we're going to build on that and to use the science that we produce to serve the nation. I would like to solve the overfishing problem. I would like to put the satellite programme back on track. I would like to establish a National Climate Service in partnership with other agencies. And I would like to put us on a track to protect and restore ocean ecosystems. I'm still coming up to speed on a lot of the details of the issues and what the current state of play of many of them is here at NOAA. But that's sort of the broad agenda, and we'll be talking about specifics as we move along (see NOAA chief ready to tackle climate).

What do you mean when you say science will be a priority?

It's my belief that a resilient society and economy depend on informed decisions regarding environmental challenges and resource-management issues. The role of science is to provide the knowledge to do that informing. Those decisions might be made by individuals or governments or by companies; I believe those decisions will be better if they are informed by science. I use "informed" judiciously because I don't think the science should dictate any particular outcome. Decisions are going to take into account a number of different things — values, politics, economics — but science should be at the table in a way that is understandable and relevant and credible and salient. NOAA, as an applied-science agency, has the responsibility to develop and communicate and use science to make policy and management decisions, but also to inform policy and management decisions that are made by others.

Was there a big problem in terms of scientists being muzzled in the last administration?

It's probably hard to know for sure. We've all heard stories. I was not on the inside of NOAA at the time. What I can tell you is that as we move forward science will be respected; it will not be muzzled. It will not be distorted. And scientists will be free to share their scientific findings whether they fit any preconceived policy or not. One of the things I intend to do soon is to actually examine the policies and practices within the agency and review them. As you know, the president has charged his science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, with framing guidelines across the agencies, so we will be working closely with John in making sure that our own policies within NOAA are consistent with and complementary to the inter-agency policies. I intend to start reaching out to the scientists within as well as outside NOAA to help review and revise our policies.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act on fisheries management calls for an end to overfishing by 2011. Is that a reasonable goal?

It's going to be a significant challenge. We are not on track to do that now, and one of my priorities is to figure out how [we can be]. I support the goal of ending overfishing. I recognize that it's going to be a very difficult task and will require the cooperation and commitment of the fishing industry to rebuild these resources. I understand that the health of the 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 while still meeting the requirements of the law. It will be a very tough challenge, but it is doable. And we must do it.

Does NOAA have the budget it needs?

I haven't had my budget briefings yet. The budget is indeed a challenge.

Have you met with Gary Locke [the nominee for commerce secretary, the department in which NOAA is based]?

I have had the opportunity to meet with Governor Locke, and I think he will be a spectacular secretary of commerce. He is very supportive of NOAA's agenda. Because Governor Locke was governor of a coastal state, Washington state, he's already quite familiar with a lot of NOAA issues and what NOAA does. I think he appreciates how important it is to citizens, and I think we share the same vision for priorities with the agency.

What about the president?

I had an excellent conversation with the president in Chicago, and he was keenly interested in climate and ocean issues and their nexus. He asked a lot of really smart questions, such as exactly what role oceans play in the climate system, how climate change is affecting other things in oceans like fisheries, and protection of biological diversity.

What did you mean when you told The New York Times you thought iron-fertilization experiments could do significant damage if done at the scale needed?

Many of the experiments that have been done to date are relatively small-scale and short-term. Those experiments can tell us how a few species will respond over the short term to the addition of iron. They do not and cannot tell us the larger ecosystem-scale responses over a longer period of time. Therein lie the risks of serious disruption. We know from many studies done in lake ecosystems that changing nutrients have surprising and completely unintended consequences at higher trophic levels and can result in a significant shift of an ecosystem from one state to another. It's difficult to evaluate the likelihood of that [sort of thing] with small-scale, short-term experiments.

Do you believe, as some colleagues have argued, that all Earth systems science research in the United States should be consolidated into a single new Earth systems science agency?

There are a lot of different possible ways to organize programmes and agencies and departments. I can see merits in a number of different types of arrangements and would not eliminate the utility of any of them. That's not going to be my primary focus initially; my intent is to work with the structure that we have and try to make it as effective as possible.

How might you learn from your international counterparts?

I think we have huge opportunities to strengthen relationships. Many of them will be around places, others will be around issues. One of my priorities and special interests is the Arctic. That is a prime opportunity for not only inter-agency but inter-country dialogue and cooperation.