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New head of US oceans agency speaks out

Jane Lubchenco, a marine tidal ecologist at Oregon State University, is on the job this week as the new head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She replaces Vice-Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, who led NOAA until last October, and becomes the first woman to head up the agency, which is a sprawling beast charged with everything from managing US fisheries to running the country’s operational earth-monitoring satellite programme. news.2009.182.jpg

On her first business day on the job after being sworn in (by the highest-ranking official at the Department of Commerce who was available; she’s undoubtedly hoping for Vice-President Joe Biden for the ceremonial swearing-in that comes later), Lubchenco granted me and Eli Kintisch, a reporter for Science, 30 minutes of her time. I’ve posted up an edited version of that conversation here. What might not come through to the casual reader is just how well-versed Lubchenco is in the world of policy. She’s never run a major agency or facility or group before, but she has plenty of experience in communicating with the public and, perhaps more importantly in her new job, with Congress.

As my colleague Rex Dalton reports in a story in the upcoming issue of Nature, she created the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, perhaps the most respected programme in the world to train environmental scientists to communicate with policymakers. I’ve spoken to Lubchenco casually before on science topics, but in our talk this week it became clear just how practiced she is at dealing with the short attention spans of not just journalists, but also policymakers. She speaks clearly and in practiced sentences, sometimes coming off as stiff but more often as thoughtful. She uses small words, short sentences, and stays on topic throughout her answers. And perhaps most significantly, she knows when to say she doesn’t know something.

A science-policy friend of mine says that Lubchenco stands out because she knows more than she thinks she does, whereas the opposite is usually the case with people who ascend to high levels of government. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes the agency and how she fares in the dog-eat-dog world of Washington.


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