OSU Chief Research Scientist Appointed to Head of NOAA

By Kirsten Allen

SpinradRick Spinrad, vice president of research at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS), has recently been awarded the position of chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Oregon State President Ed Ray was quick to commend the appointment, saying, “Rick Spinrad has provided exceptional leadership to the university’s research enterprise. He has successfully increased our research partnerships with industry, spearheaded the drive for a marine studies campus in Newport, and helped OSU secure a major grant to design and oversee the construction of as many as three new ships for the United States research fleet.”

Spinrad’s list of contributions to OSU range from acquiring funding for several science departments to assisting in the launch of OSU Advantage, an initiative designed to boost the university’s impact on the job market and economic progress. He also played a major role in the launch of Oregon RAIN, the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, designed to investigate the civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Before his career at OSU, he held the position of research director of the US Navy, worked as a research scientist, and taught oceanography at two universities.

We were able to ask him a few questions as he boarded a flight to discuss his new position as NOAA’s chief scientist. Spinrad is primarily filling a advisory role, and has goals of enhancing scientific products to support key mission areas such as climate and weather predictions and projections, severe storm forecasts, fisheries management, coastal zone management, and several natural resource stewardship responsibilities.

“I’m very interested in helping NOAA develop its full set of environmental observing systems, including weather satellites, ocean observing systems, and climate monitoring networks,” Spinrad said, as well as looking forward to involvement in NOAA’s newly formed Environmental Intelligence Operations. “One of NOAA’s concepts of operations that I find most exciting is its development of what they are calling ‘environmental intelligence,’ the critical environmental information that helps support decision-makers—legislators, commerce, policy-makers, educators, etc.”

When asked what the climate and geography of the Pacific Northwest has to offer in regards to environmental research, Spinrad said that he believed the PNW provides “complex diversity of climates and weather patterns, such as differences between the Willamette Valley and the High Desert.” The topographic diversity of the Northwest has the potential to assist in determining how a shifting climate will affect the land.

“With climate change impacting seasonal air temperatures as well as precipitation we need to be sensitive to how our forests, agricultural lands, and water resources will change in the next several decades,” he said.

He predicted he’ll be spending the majority of his time speaking with directors of research in academia and industry, as well as negotiating for critical products and support services in regards to NOAA’s missions. Of the several challenges he says he expects to face, transitioning discoveries and data acquired through research into operations is likely to expose several obstacles. However, he is determined to meet this challenge head-on.

“I look forward to helping NOAA address the most effective means of moving great scientific findings into the agency’s portfolio of products and services. For example, how can we improve the forecasts of storm intensity, how can we project changes in ocean acidification?” he said.

The search for a permanent replacement to fill Spinrad’s position is expected to begin this summer, a process which could take up to a year. The fact that he was the third appointee from Oregon State to NOAA in the last three decades is a strong indication that OSU is one of the nation’s leading environmental research institutions. The university’s ability to continue to conduct environmental studies and research is likely to be heavily relied upon in the future as the nation continues the struggle to understand and prepare for the impacts of climate change.