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Lubchenco Brings Northwest Experience To NOAA


President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Oregon State University ocean scientist Jane Lubchenco to head up NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Joining us over the phone this morning is OPB special projects reporter, Christy George. She's produced documentaries for both OPB radio and TV that feature Jane Lubchenco. Good morning, Christy.

Christy George: Morning, Geoff.

Geoff Norcross: Tell us a little about Jane Lubchenco's background.

Christy George: She's a professor of zoology and marine biology at OSU, and she specializes in the narrow zone where the land meets the sea, that place where you find tidepools.

OPB listeners probably know her best as the researcher who discovered a dead zone off the Oregon coast, and then tied it to climate change. That dead zone has come back every year since 2002.

And Jane Lubchenco got a MacArthur Genius grant. That's the one you can't apply for - they find you because you're doing interesting things.

Geoff Norcross: What interesting things has she done?

Christy George: Well, she's started a number of organizations that do very simple, very practical things.

For instance, in her Aldo Leopold fellowship program, she finds promising young scentists and teaches them to stop using scientific jargon, and speak intelligibly to the public.

She also started the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans. PISCO conducts the very same experiments up and down the Pacific Coast, using the very same measurements. It makes perfect sense, but university researchers just never got together like that before.

Geoff Norcross: How does her experience fit with NOAA's mission?

Christy George: NOAA's job is studying the planets' environment but it sits under the Commerce Department, so Lubchenco will have a dual mission of science and business.

For instance, NOAA oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, so she'll have to balance the needs of both fish and the fishing industry.

In his campaign, Obama laid out the same kind of science meets business approach. He said he'll deal with climate change by building a green economy.

Geoff Norcross: Why do you think Jane Lubchenco was picked to head NOAA?

Christy George: Well, first off, she's obviously qualified scientifically. She knows the issues - things like the plight of coral reefs. People burn fossil fuels, the ocean stores excess carbon dixoide emissions. The carbon turns the ocean warmer and more acid, and the coral dies.

She's been on the national stage, too - in groups like the UN's Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, and she's a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

And she's also earned her street cred as a politician.

Geoff Norcross: How so?

Christy George: Jane Lubchenco knows how to bridge the partisan divide. She co-chaired Ted Kulongoski's first Advisory Group on Global Warming, but she was also quick to hail George W. Bush, when he set aside a huge marine reserve around Hawaii. She called it a "masterful stroke of presidential leadership."

That ability to reach across the aisle is important to Obama, because he wants to move fast on climate change, and that's been a political hot potato in Congress going back to the Clinton years. 

Geoff Norcross: What else is she likely to do on climate change?

Christy George: NOAA oversees the National Weather Service, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Weather Service start connecting the dots between climate science and what's happening on the ground with weather.

And look for NOAA scientists to feel more freedom. Until last year, they were complaining that the Bush administration was censoring what they said about climate change.

So - Jane Lubchenco's challenge will be to restore the agency's credibility and morale, and put climate change at the center of NOAA's mission.

It's a tall order.

Geoff Norcross: What else should we know about her?

Christy George: Well, like Barack Obama, Jane Lubchenco is a barrier-breaker. At Oregon State, she and her husband Bruce Menge were the first couple to job-share a tenured professorship — so she's a natural choice to be the first woman to lead NOAA.

But you know, Geoff, I think she may be happiest of all when she's tidepooling on the Oregon coast. So I wouldn't be surprised to see her come back for frequent visits.

Geoff Norcross: Thanks, Christy

Christy George: You're welcome, Geoff.

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