Jane Lubchenco back in Newport to dedicate ‘marine ops’ facility
NEWPORT — Not so many years ago, Jane Lubchenco could often be found on a Yaquina Bay dock at the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center, pulling together gear in the quiet, early morning hours for a research cruise into the choppy Pacific waters off Oregon’s coast.
Lubchenco’s circumstances in Newport on Saturday were decidedly less modest. Representing the president of the United States, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in her role as its administrator, Lubchenco dedicated NOAA’s Marine Operations Center-Pacific Facility under a picture-perfect blue sky, sun glinting off the calm waters of the bay.
Formerly a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University, where she served on the faculty for 32 years, the internationally respected 63-year-old has headed NOAA since the spring of 2009. She is the first woman to serve in that role and, as such, heads the nation’s first federal scientific agency: NOAA’s predecessor, the Survey of the Coast, was established by Thomas Jefferson in 1807.
“As someone who took biology in college and who wanted to become a marine biologist before I got lost on my way to the boat, I want to say how proud I am to share the stage today with Dr. Lubchenco,” said Gov. John Kitzhaber at Saturday’s ceremonies, only half in jest.
He wasn’t alone in his praise: Sen. Ron Wyden described her as “a wonderful scientist” with a “rare combination of scientific expertise, passion and leadership.”
Rep. Kurt Schrader described her afterward as the “perfect addition to the (Obama) administration’s staff to make sure science guides our efforts” at NOAA.
“Jane was a good choice,” said John Byrne, watching Lubchenco speak with media representatives Saturday, and Byrne knows something about the role: He served as NOAA administrator himself from 1981 to 1984, when he left to become president of OSU. “She told me before she got the appointment that she really wanted it, and that’s important. It’s a tough job.”
Lubchenco’s career provided deep preparation for the position. After earning a Ph.D. in ecology from Harvard and teaching there for two years, Lubchenco moved to Corvallis in 1977 and dove into a research career that made her one of the nation’s most recognized scientists.
It wasn’t merely her passion for scientific inquiry that drove her success. She was interested in translating research to the public, a passion that led her to establish influential programs that train scientists as communicators and to serve as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among many other organizations.
Her husband, acclaimed marine biologist and fellow OSU Distinguished Professor Bruce Menge, who has collaborated often with Lubchenco throughout their careers, continues their scientific work at Oregon State with the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans program.
As Lubchenco’s reputation and influence grew, she became one of the nation’s most lauded scientists. She has won virtually every significant award in her field outside the Nobel Prize, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. The respected journal Nature named her 2010’s “Newsmaker of the Year.”
Her credibility as a researcher was an important part of President Obama’s efforts to signal that administration scientific policies would be guided by science rather than politics — a criticism frequently leveled at the Bush administration. She was one of three widely lauded initial appointees to Obama’s “scientific team,” and won confirmation despite congressional critics who grumbled about her work in climate change.
NOAA’s 13,000 employees “have been excited to have a scientist at the helm,” said characteristically soft-spoken Lubchenco, following Saturday’s dedication ceremony. “Science comes first at NOAA.”
Despite that, her 2½ years on the job have been no day at the beach. NOAA has borne primary federal government responsibility for dealing with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Some 500 miles of Gulf coastline remain contaminated by the event, and negative effects on marine and wildlife habitat are expected for many years to come.
“We have a lot on our plate,” Lubchenco said. “It was a very significant disaster.”
During such a time, a leader of Lubchenco’s background is crucial, said Byrne, explaining that the outstanding scientists who work for NOAA need more than just an effective manager. “You’ve got to be a cheerleader at times,” he said. “They have to know that the leader values what they do.”
But Saturday’s festivities were about more positive circumstances and the future they represent. The new “marine ops” facility, which will serve as homeport for four research and survey ships, “adds significant value to an already significant marine science presence here in Newport,” said Lubchenco, noting the widely recognized strengths of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and the various federal and state agencies represented there. “Those strengths are going to come together and gel, and we’ll see what is possible in their interactions.”
As for what she and NOAA bring to the table, she’s crystal clear. “We’re about the science,” she said, “using it and sharing it to make a difference.”
Todd Simmons is associate vice president for university relations and marketing and director of OSU News & Research Communications.