Barry Myers, the nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, went to great lengths at his confirmation hearing to assure senators he would respect and defend NOAA science as well as avoid any potential conflicts of interest arising from his connections to a weather company he co-founded.
Science was center stage at the Nov. 29 confirmation hearing for Barry Myers, President Trump’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Myers sought to assure members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that he has a deep appreciation for NOAA’s scientific mission. In response to pointed questions from Democratic senators, Myers vowed to uphold NOAA’s scientific integrity policies and champion free and open data. And, for the first time in public since his nomination, he concurred with the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change and promised to support NOAA’s climate research portfolio.
Myers also explained how he plans to address potential conflicts of interest stemming from his connection with AccuWeather, a private weather company he co-founded with his brothers.
The Republican committee members present generally expressed support for Myers. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), chair of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, called him a “well-qualified candidate” who is a “recognized national and international authority on weather forecasting.”
Myers vows to uphold scientific integrity, respect climate research
In his opening statement, Myers acknowledged he is not a scientist himself, but said he has “a passion for science” and has been “a leader of scientists.” He also pointed out he has been recognized as a fellow of the American Meteorological Society (an AIP Member Society) and called scientific integrity “a core value for me and the central component in the success of the company I have led.”
Democratic senators pressed Myers on his views on the role of science at NOAA and the level of independence that should be afforded to its scientists. When Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) asked for assurance from Myers that he would support and advocate for the agency’s climate research portfolio, Myers affirmed he would. Schatz then asked if he would comply with NOAA’s scientific integrity policy and defend the rights of NOAA scientists, to which Myers responded, “Yes, I will,” adding that he is familiar with the policy.
In response to a question from Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Myers committed to maintaining a culture at NOAA that respects science. He said he has no intent to disrupt the agency’s established scientific culture or undermine any part of its research portfolio.
Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) delved further, telling Myers that respect for scientific freedom and integrity under the Trump administration is a matter of significant anxiety for many climate researchers:
The scientists in the federal government are increasingly paranoid that because the president has pulled out of the Paris Agreement and that NOAA is such a central provider of information on this subject that they are very fearful that they are going to be punished.
Markey pointed to the recently released Climate Change Special Report of the National Climate Assessment, and asked Myers if he believes humans are the main cause of climate change. When Myers responded that he had read “the reports” and had “no reason to disagree with them,” Markey asked if he agreed with the reports.
Myers replied, “I agree with the reports that they’re based on quality, peer reviewed research, which is something that I strongly support.” Markey pressed further, asking for confirmation that this meant Myers believes human activities are the main cause of climate change. Myers concurred, “That is what I am saying.”
When asked by Markey if he would commit broadly to supporting NOAA’s scientists, including those who work on the National Climate Assessment, Myers affirmed he would, referencing his past experience working with scientists:
I was on the graduate faculty of Penn State for many years. I know what quality research looks like. I know what peer reviewed research looks like. And scientists should be free to operate in that kind of environment. They need to subject their research obviously to peer review so other scientists can weigh in on it. But once that process is completed that information should be made available to all.
Dem senators press Myers on conflicts of interest
In his opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) spoke of the indispensable role the National Weather Service (NWS) played in forecasting and working with local government and emergency managers in Florida when Hurricane Irma hit earlier this year. He asked Myers to reflect on how NOAA “directly impacts the daily lives of millions” and “has always put protecting lives and properties of Americans ahead of personal commercial interest.”
Nelson then said he was concerned about Myers’ potential conflicts of interest arising from his being intertwined with his family's weather business. He noted Myers had already given him private assurances that he would fully divest from AccuWeather and that as administrator he would not discuss NOAA business with his brothers.
Nelson described how he was particularly irked by past legislation sponsored by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), which Myers supported, that could have blocked NWS from producing or communicating weather forecasts or other services if they were seen as competing with the private weather industry.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) raised similar concerns, saying that NOAA and AccuWeather “have this ‘co-opetition’ sort of relationship, where you depend on each other. You’re sort of scuffling with each other sometimes, but you’re actually enmeshed.”
Myers responded that “any business executive that has close ties to a company, has worked at a company for a long time, has led the company … has the same issue coming into government that I have.” He confirmed he will fully divest from AccuWeather and that he will not talk with his brothers about NOAA, adding that he is aware that favoring one company over another as NOAA administrator would violate federal law.
Myers commits to championing open data
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) also brought up Myers’ past support of the Santorum bill, asking Myers if he “still believed NOAA should refrain from making weather and forecasting products available to the public.” Myers pushed back, replying that he never promoted such a policy and instead supports a free and open data policy for NOAA:
If anything, I have advocated the opposite. I have spoke[n] many times in advocation of free and open data from NOAA, that it should be available to all, that there should always be a level playing field for all U.S. citizens and U.S. companies. … I support, and have talked about it many times, that all, all NWS data should be available. And, in fact, it’s not all available now.
When Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) broached the topic of public accessibility of published research results, Myers replied that he supports open and public access to the results of taxpayer-funded science. He added, however, “The only clarification I have to that is [that it be] quality science that is peer reviewed and meets the quality assurances … generally considered appropriate in scientific fields.”
Improving weather models among Myers’ priorities
While Myers did not field any questions during the hearing on priorities he plans to pursue at NOAA, he outlined them in a candidate questionnaire he submitted to the committee prior to the hearing.
In it, he indicated his top three priorities are: 1) addressing the fisheries trade imbalance between the U.S. and other nations, 2) ensuring U.S. weather models are the best in the world, and 3) implementing the recently enacted Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, which he helped craft. Myers’ three priorities align with those that NOAA Deputy Administrator Timothy Gallaudet articulated at a NOAA Science Advisory Board meeting last month.
In addition to Myers’ nomination, the nomination of Neil Jacobs for an assistant secretary position overseeing NOAA’s weather observations and prediction programs is also pending before the Senate. Jacobs fielded few questions at his confirmation hearing, although he also completed a committee questionnaire in which he discusses his views and plans for NOAA.
The Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote on advancing Myers’ nomination to the full Senate on Dec. 13.