Putting NOAA Together- 1970

Forging NOAA

U.S. Department of Commerce




Reorganization of the Federal Government is a complex matter.  Much of the difficulty has to do with Congressional control. Specific committees oversee given agencies and the congressional people on those committees do not want to lose that control. Their public constituencies do not want change.


In order to give the President the ability to reorganize, the process was as follows: The President would sign an Executive Order providing for a given reorganization and Congress would have ninety days in which to disapprove the action. That meant that we had ninety days in which to keep Congress from objecting. I was assisted by Ed Loughlin of my office, who had a good feel for bureaucratic politics.


A special Presidential press conference was held to announce the signing of the Executive Order establishing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I helped draft the press release and the order, incidentally changing “Oceanographic” to “Oceanic”, and then met with Ron Zeigler, President Nixon’s Press Secretary, who would make the announcement. As he read the draft, he said, “NOAA? Like the Bible’s Noah? That’s no good,” and pulling out a pencil, “ We can come up with a better name.”  I grabbed his arm and said, “No you can’t. This is what the scientific community wants!”  He  stared at me. “Pretty stupid…but..” He shrugged his shoulders and put the pencil down. I’ve always wondered as to the name he would have contrived and the amount of public ridicule that would have produced. In any event, the press conference went very quietly. The reporters made some notes and asked no questions.


However, among those affected organizations there was a great deal of unhappiness with the President’s decision to locate NOAA within the Department of Commerce. The typical reaction from the scientific and environmental community was that it was a case of putting the fox in the hen house. As I went about the business of seeking advice on putting the pieces together, I received much more criticism than help. One environmental group claimed that the weather reporting people within DOC often preferred the word “mist” to “smog”. The conservationists and the sportsfishing industry saw commercial fisheries as a threat. The consumer groups were sure that fishery products would not receive close scrutiny. (In fact, as Ed Loughlin put it to me: “The purpose of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries is to sell fish.”)The scientists demanded an immediate increase in the budget to meet the research goals recommended by the Stratton Commission.


Not only was there unhappiness abroad, there was a lot of discontent within the federal government. As examples:


(1)   Clearly the personnel of those elements of the Department of Interior that were going to be transferred to Commerce, such as the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF), were most unhappy and worried. In one case, a lab on the West Coast that specialized in studying the effects of pollutants, such as DDT, on marine life was dismantled. I visited the lab before the order came through and was impressed with the work, but there was nothing I could do to stop its “destruction”. We ended up with some of the personnel, but not the equipment.


(2)   The Sea Grant program of the National Science Foundation was one of in-coming agencies. The program provided 50% funding for marine research in colleges and universities. As soon as the Presidential order creating NOAA was issued, the head of NSF began an new 100% funding competitive program. All that I could do was to entice a key NSF scientist to join the NOAA top team.



(3)   The Stratton Commission Report recommended that the Coast Guard be brought into NOAA. I have a separate story on this aspect. Suffice to say here that the Coast Guard was unresponsive to my request for any advance meeting and the Department of Transportation was not cooperative.



(4)   The Fish and Wildlife Service of the Interior Department was concerned about jurisdiction over various species. They listed fourteen separate issues, each difficult to resolve. I promised that we would place this matter at the top of the NOAA agenda as soon as it came into existence.



(5)   Congress itself was very bothered, fearful that the entire NOAA purpose would be lost. We responded by proposing the creation of an independent National Advisory Commission on the Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA) that would report annually to Congress on NOAA’s activities. This helped to quiet the disquiet, although the issue of who would make the NACOA appointments had to be negotiated. And, of course, certain U.S. senators and representatives did not want to lose their control over specific agencies and programs. We did the best we could in these negotiations.


I had the Stratton Commission Report with its organizational recommendations. However, by this time in my life, I knew that there was more to the matter than mere structural logic. I had to get some understanding of the oceanographic and atmospheric community. Somehow I was told that the best person to provide this type of insight was a Dr. John Isaacs, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego. I asked that arrangements be made to have Dr. Isaacs meet with me in Washington.


Only a day or so later, a big man, dressed in heavy outdoors wear and big boots, strode into my office. His face was burned from the sun, his hair was a mop of white and his heavy white beard was unkempt. It was Dr. John Isaacs.  He had been doing some individual research in a isolated location on the Mexican coast. From what I gathered, he had been just plucked up and brought to Washington.  This was not what I had in mind.


His voice was quite strong as he looked down at me and said: “I’m John Isaacs. You wanted to see me?”


This was embarrassing. I had interrupted a scientist in the midst of his work for a non-emergency. However, he was very nice. After I explained my situation, we walked our way through the Stratton Commission Report. John Isaacs explained relationships, identified key individuals and gave me his best advice. For example, the Stratton Commission recommended that there be some federal direction of the research being conducted at a number of colleges and universities. Isaacs persuaded me that “hands off” would be the best course of action. As a result I took no steps toward increased federal direction of the atmospheric research being conducted at Boulder, Colorado or the marine research at such places as the University of Miami or by the Scripps Institution within the University of California, San Diego.


Dr, John D. Isaacs  was a patient man as, in his deep, husky, quiet  voice he explained a new world to me. Fortunately for me, he not only had no special personal or political agenda but he also had no fear.  He spoke plainly. As in other disciplines, there were many rivalries in the fields of marine and atmospheric research. Without taking sides, John Isaacs provided wonderful background information about individuals and organizations. Although we only spent a few hours together, I can still hear his voice.


John Isaacs was the Director of Marine Engineering at the Scripps Institution. He later became famous when he suggested that San Diego’s water supply problem could be solved by towing icebergs from Alaska. I am certain that his calculations were correct, but the idea never had a chance.


Following John Isaacs’ advice, I met with certain interest groups and visited a number of facilities around the country. I also spent a half-day with Phil Roedel, Director of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and his two top assistants. I tried to assure these professionals that on coming into NOAA they and their programs would not be sacrificed to other Commerce Department  interests, nor would there be wholesale personnel changes.  Dr. Wiliam Aron, Director of Oceanography at the Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Sydney Geller, Senior Marine Scientist with the National Science Foundation, were among the highly regarded professionals who agreed to “come aboard” NOAA.  These were important steps in assuring a good beginning for NOAA.  For me, these were great learning experiences.


Some incidents:


From an outside source, I received word that the Navy would be willing to agree to the transfer to NOAA of an admiral who was its top oceanographer. Feeling that Navy cooperation would be most useful in future NOAA research, I made the arrangements to bring the admiral on board. It seemed to be a wise move. However, there was one odd aspect. I visited the admiral after he moved into the Commerce building. Seated in the anteroom, in front of the admiral’s secretary’s desk, there was a young Filipino man. It seems that the admiral had brought his steward with him.  After the steward had brought in the tea and left, I wisely said nothing about that, then or thereafter. (Until now.)


Several of the more interesting episodes took place while I was visiting the fisheries laboratory at San Diego. As I approached the building, I saw that its name was “National Marine Fisheries Service, US Department of Commerce”. I asked how they were able to get that name up so fast and was told that they had played anagrams with the previous name: “Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, US Department of the Interior”.  Director Alan Longhurst and his deputy, Dr. Isadore Barrett seemed pleased to demonstrate some of their fisheries experiments.


I went on to an interview with Dr. William Nierenberg, Director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) which was right down the hill from the U.S. laboratory. (Several years later, I worked closely with Dr. Nierenberg in connection with the National Advisory Commission on the Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA)). He introduced me to Richard Silberman, then a young “San Diego activist” who spoke about the possibility of doing relatively inexpensive deep-sea research by constructing a column extending down to the seabed, very close to the SIO. Evidently the shoreline drops extremely fast right at that point. Silberman also pushed for the building of an international oceanographic center at an unused location on Harbor Island. (Except as a parking lot, that specific site remains unused thirty years later.) I was never quite sure with regard to the suggested deep sea column, but I was surprised that no local agency, such as the San Diego Port District, ever pushed NOAA concerning an international oceanographic center. It seemed to me to be a natural development, yet I felt that as a San Diego resident, it would be a conflict of interest for me to do anything but mention the idea to the incoming NOAA leadership.


Shortly before the ninety days of Congressional review were over, the Secretary of Commerce was invited to a Congressional hearing on the NOAA reorganization.  While the Secretary would be there to handle general matters, I brought along Dr. Robert White and Dr. John Townsend of the Environmental Sciences Service Administration (ESSA), already in Commerce, to assist in answering specific organizational questions.  This critical hearing went very well.


Suddenly the ninety day period had passed. NOAA was a reality. The Secretary held a special departmental celebration in his office. I understand that he offered a toast in my honor. However I was off on another assignment at the time.



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Published in: on May 24, 2008 at 7:56 pm  Comments Off on Putting NOAA Together- 1970  
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