President Donald Trump has nominated a businessman who has supported the privatization of weather data to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the National Weather Service.
The nomination of Barry Myers, the chief executive of AccuWeather, has raised concerns among some that installing a non-scientist with a vested interest in privatizing government data could result in the hobbling of an agency that provides a critical function in weather forecasting, oceanography and climate science.
"We've now had several nominees at NASA and NOAA who have really pushed the idea of privatization of government functions," said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That just flat out worries me."
In announcing Myer's nomination, AccuWeather issued a statement calling him a veteran leader and saying he would step down from the company if confirmed. His brother, AccuWeather Founder, Chairman and President Joel Myers, said: "On a personal note, as his brother, I have known him all his life, and I know he will be fully dedicated to serve the nation's needs in a rational and ethical way."
In 2005, AccuWeather worked with Sen. Rick Santorum on a bill that would have severely restricted public access to the National Weather Service's forecasts. Two days before Santorum introduced the bill, his political action committee received a $2,000 donation from then-CEO of AccuWeather Joel Myers.
The bill, which died in committee, would have allowed commercial weather information providers like AccuWeather to continue to access NOAA's weather data, but it would have blocked NOAA from putting out products that could be considered in competition with what the private sector was making available.
What's to Ensure Future Data Get Collected?
At the time Santorum's bill was introduced, Paul Sandifer was working as a senior scientist at NOAA. He remembers how concerned scientists within the agency were then at the prospect of privatizing data. "Those concerns are some of what I'm worried about now," he said.
"If the collection of data is turned over to the business community, what's to ensure that the data that are really needed for the future get collected? Particularly if it's given over to politically motivated private sector folks," said Sandifer, who was the chief science advisor for NOAA's National Ocean Service when he retired at the end of 2014.
In the last few months, in particular, the strength of NOAA's data and forecasting has been evident as Americans have been caught up in several natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes.
"Think about the recent disasters: in every one of those situations there were NOAA government officials talking about the information they had on hand and people understood the validity of that information," Sandifer said. "It wasn't coming from one side or another—it was the right information."
Another NOAA Nominee with Business Interests
Myers is not the only recent NOAA nominee with a business interest in NOAA's work.
In early October, Trump nominated Neil Jacobs to be the assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction. Jacobs is the chief atmospheric scientist for Panasonic Weather Solutions, a private company that, like AccuWeather, has worked toward the privatization of certain data.
In July, Jacobs testified before the House Science Committee, advocating for the proprietary model that his company developed, which he said was "better" than NOAA models. Panasonic currently sells some its data to NOAA—a relationship that could fall under Jacobs' purview if confirmed for the NOAA position.
In announcing the nominations, the Trump administration touted the business acumen of both men.
Myers' Family Business Presents a Conundrum
Rosenberg worried in a blog post that the companies' past ambitions may come to fruition.
"It is easy to see how private weather companies like AccuWeather or Panasonic could directly benefit from decisions made by Myers and Jacobs," he wrote.
In an interview with InsideClimate News, he elaborated: "Myers is going to make decisions on what happens to the Weather Service, the climate programs and so on. And that will directly affect the business that he has built, his family owns and presumably he goes back to."
It presents a conundrum, Rosenberg said: "Does he recuse himself from those decisions? Then he's heading an agency and recuses himself from a quarter of decisions. And if he doesn't, how does he serve the public interest?"
A third NOAA nominee, Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, who is a former Navy oceanographer, has been named to assistant secretary of commerce for conservation and management. His nomination was met with praise by members of the scientific community.