A Few Words in Honor of NOAA's Departing Administrator

By Nancy Colleton

NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher confers with fellow co-chairs and national representatives during the first ad hoc meeting of the Group on Earth Observations, Aug. 1, 2003.

Last week's announcement by NOAA Administrator Conrad Lauten-bacher that he is resigning effective October 31, 2008, wasn't much of a surprise to many of us, as we have been expecting it. But what was surprising is that not two minutes after receiving the general NOAA announcement, Lautenbacher followed with a personal message thanking his colleagues for their support during his tenure as undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. He wrote, "It has been an extreme pleasure and privilege to serve in this capacity and I am most grateful for your support and interest during these years."

This gesture was vintage Lautenbacher, and, having had the honor to work with him on various projects since 2003, I shouldn't have been surprised. He has traveled thousands of miles representing the U.S. abroad and has endured much difficulty in transforming and raising the visibility of NOAA during difficult political and economic times. At a time when we should be thanking him for all that he has done, he graciously acknowledges others around him.

That act represents my first impression of him—an impression that has remained consistent these many years—that he is a leader of solid integrity and a true civil servant. Lautenbacher never put himself first and always approached his work with the highest level of civility, dedication, and enthusiasm.

When the U.S. hosted the first Earth Observations Summit in 2003, those of us involved in planning the activity were eager to see how it would be received internationally. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq four months earlier and the summit was being called by an unpopular administration that wasn't known for its environmental culture, that was openly criticized for not signing onto Kyoto, and that rarely used the term "climate change."

The first Earth Observation Summit was very successful. It attracted 34 countries and resulted in a declaration to move forward with an ambitious multinational effort to connect the world's disparate Earth and environmental datasets, which today is known as the Global Earth Observations System of Systems (GEOSS). However, the first meeting of the ad hoc working group on Earth observations, which immediately followed the summit, didn't occur without its challenges. Many national representatives came to the meeting suspicious of U.S. intentions and concerned about possible ownership of the system the country proposed. In addition, because of the popularity of the meeting, there were many more participants than expected, which created problems with logistics and general entry to the meeting.

In this environment of uncertainty, early frustration, language barriers, and misunderstandings, I witnessed Lautenbacher's skills as a leader, diplomat, and statesman. He quickly greeted European colleagues, noting how good it was to have so many people want to be part of the ad hoc group; he personally welcomed numerous national representatives by shaking hands, thanking them for their participation, and continually emphasizing the importance of multi-national partnership. He also deferred to his co-chairs from Japan and the European Commission to move deliberations forward, ensuring that the U.S. was not seen as monopolizing the discussions.

By the meeting's end, two things had happened: 1) the attendees had evolved into a cohesive working group, reaching agreement on how to proceed; and 2) it had become very clear that Lautenbacher—the former vice-admiral who had once played the banjo on Hootenanny—would be key to leading the U.S., as well as other nations, to implement GEOSS.

No one would argue that much work remains to be done to realize GEOSS. Data policy, gaps in measurements, quality assurance, interoperability issues, science and applications priorities, and the role of the private sector are all issues that remain to be more fully resolved within the GEOSS context.

In the U.S., it is not clear who will fill Lautenbacher's role, whether a new administration will support GEOSS, and whether appropriate funding will be made available to fast-track the U.S. contribution to GEOSS. However, the potential remains strong for what a system of systems could deliver to society to better manage the planet.

Not surprisingly, Lautenbacher in his September 23rd message recognized the summit and GEOSS as one of NOAA's accomplishments. As he describes it, the accomplishment was "The initiation of the first-ever Earth Observation Summit, which led to the formation of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and the commitment of 75 nations and 51 international organizations, to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), without which, among other things, it will be impossible to monitor the viability and progress of any worldwide agreement to reduce green house gasses and mitigate global warming."

The establishment of GEOSS is, in itself, a great achievement, and yet Lautenbacher's legacy as NOAA Administrator goes even further and "raises the bar" for future NOAA Administrators. It will be extremely important for the next NOAA Administrator to possess attributes similar to those that Lautenbacher brought to the position–including management of operational programs, an understanding of how we might leverage defense capabilities to benefit the civil sector, and awareness of the need to move quickly with technologies to respond to global change. These skills will be important in meeting NOAA's future mission needs, such as establishing a national climate service and fielding and deploying integrated systems needed in the future.

Frederick Nordlund, former Washington representative for European Space Agency, recently spoke with me and said how he regretted hearing of Lautenbacher's resignation. He stated, "I don't think we have ever seen a NOAA Administrator like Lautenbacher. Not only did he do so much for NOAA, he did so much for the world. We will miss him."

Well said, Frederick.

By Nancy Colleton, President, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Arlington, Va., www.strategies.org

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