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Trump taps AccuWeather CEO to head NOAA, despite lack of science background

This NOAA-NASA GOES Project satellite image shows hurricane activity at 1300 UTC on September 23, 2017. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. The drama unfolded as the US island territory, working without electricity, struggled to dig out and clean up from its disastrous brush with the hurricane, blamed for at least 33 deaths across the Caribbean.The 1920's era earthen dam on the Guajataca River in northwest Puerto Rico cracked on Friday, prompting the government to issue an order for 70,000 people in downstream towns to evacuate. / AFP PHOTO / NOAA-NASA GOES PROJECT / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / NOAA-NASA GOES PROJECT/HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

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Barry Myers, if confirmed as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would oversee agencies including the National Weather Service.

WASHINGTON — Barry Myers, chief executive of the private weather forecasting company AccuWeather, is President Trump’s pick to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Appointing Myers, a businessman and lawyer, breaks from the recent precedent of scientists leading the agency, which is tasked with managing a large, complex, and technically demanding portfolio.

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The agency oversees the National Weather Service, conducts and funds weather and climate research, and operates a constellation of weather satellites as well as a climate data center. It also has critical responsibilities in monitoring and protecting the nation’s coasts, oceans, and fisheries.

Myers’ supporters say his valuable private-sector experience will help NOAA advance its capabilities.

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‘‘[I]n an Administration that places high value on business acumen, Barry brings a strong track record in growing one of the most successful companies in the weather industry,’’ said Ray Ban, cochair of the Weather Coalition, an advocacy group for strengthening America’s weather industry.

But others are concerned about his potential conflicts of interest and lack of science background. As NOAA administrator, Myers would be in charge of the Weather Service, whose data are heavily used by his family business, based in State College, Pa.

In the past, AccuWeather has supported measures to limit the extent to which the Weather Service can release information to the public, so that private companies could generate their own value-added products using this same information. In 2005, for example, Myers and his brother Joel gave money to then-senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who introduced legislation aimed at curtailing government competition with private weather services.

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‘‘Barry Myers defines conflict of interest,” said Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director in the Obama administration. ‘‘He actively lobbied to privatize the National Weather Service, which works day in and day out to protect the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans, to benefit his own company’s bottom line.’’

Myers’ appointment is strongly opposed by the labor union at the National Weather Service, the NWS Employees Organization, for this reason. ‘‘As NOAA administrator, he would be in a position to fundamentally alter the nature of weather services that NOAA provides the nation, to the benefit of his family-owned business,’’ said Richard Hirn, a union spokesman.

But in an interview in January, when he was rumored to be a candidate for administrator, Myers expressed strong support for the Weather Service and its mission. He has advised five Weather Service directors, according to his biography, and received an award in 2014 from the American Meteorological Society for ‘‘fostering strong cooperation between private sector and government weather services.’’

His supporters say he’ll apply his business savvy to help NOAA better leverage assets in the commercial sector.

‘‘Myers will bring that big data acumen to NOAA and likely accelerate a process that has slowly been underway: more private-sector collaboration with satellite data, weather models, and other information services, ‘‘ Ryan Maue, a developer of weather-model products for Weather.us, told the Associated Press.

Richard Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist in the Obama administration, expressed reservations about Myers’ lack of science background but said his business resume ‘‘could serve him well,’’ since NOAA is housed in the Department of Commerce. Spinrad said Myers could position himself to succeed if he is able ‘‘to bolster his leadership team with scientifically competent and technically experienced experts.’’

Myers may already have such leaders in place. In recent weeks, Trump has announced selections for two deputies to support the NOAA administrator: a former Navy oceanographer, Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, and Neil Jacobs, chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corp.

Gallaudet’s confirmation sailed through the Senate, and reactions to his appointment have been glowing, including from officials of the previous administration.

He “has a proven track record of outstanding service, and is a terrific nominee,’’ said Jane Lubchenco, who headed NOAA during Barack Obama’s first term as president.

News releases from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research also lauded Gallaudet’s scientific expertise and record of service.

Jacobs is best known for developing a weather forecast model at Panasonic that has, at times, outperformed the National Weather Service’s main model.

Jacobs could help Myers improve NOAA’s forecast modeling, integrating private-sector knowledge and methods.

Even so, some are uncomfortable with a businessman running an agency whose mission is public service.

‘‘The tendency to place corporate leaders in charge of public agencies is ill-advised, because the measures of success do not translate well from private organizations to public institutions,’’ said Susan Jasko, an expert in communication theory who specializes in weather at California University of Pennsylvania. ‘‘And because NOAA is about science serving the public good, it needs a leader who will be able to speak not only to politicians, but also to scientists and to citizens.’’

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