Senate confirms science adviser, passes on NOAA administrator

Space

WASHINGTON — In the final hours of the 115th Congress, the Senate confirmed a new director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) but failed to act on a nominee for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In a voice vote late Jan. 2, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Kelvin Droegemeier to be director of OSTP, serving as the president’s science advisor. The White House nominated Droegemeier Aug. 1, and the Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported the nomination Sept. 5.

Droegemeier, a meteorology professor and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, had received bipartisan support. “I think it’s appropriate to say that the research community is eager for this committee to have his nomination proceed quickly to the Senate,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the commerce committee, said of Droegemeier at an Aug. 23 confirmation hearing.

“The Senate has confirmed a highly respected scientist and academic to help further our nation’s economic competitiveness and national security,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the commerce committee, said in a Jan. 2 statement about Droegemeier’s confirmation.

In prior administrations, the OSTP director played a key role in civil space policy. However, with the reestablishment of the National Space Council by the Trump administration in 2017, the role of OSTP has diminished, although the OSTP director does serve on the council. Space policy issues did not come up in Droegemeier’s confirmation hearing or a questionnaire he submitted to the committee prior to that hearing.

Droegemeier did receive congratulations from NASA leadership, including Jim Bridenstine, the agency administrator who, like Droegemeier, is from Oklahoma. “Really look forward to working with Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier,” added Thomas Zurbuchen, the NASA associaite administrator for science.

Droegemeier was part of a wave of confirmations of nominees to various positions, from ambassadorships to FCC commissioners, in the final hours of the current Congress. The new 116th Congress convenes Jan. 3, and nominations not acted upon by the outgoing Senate will have to be resubmitted by the White House.

Among those nominations not taken up by the Senate is that of Barry Myers to be administrator of NOAA. Myers, the chief executive of AccuWeather, was nominated by the White House in October 2017 and favorably reported on a party-line vote by the Senate Commerce Committee in December 2017. The White House resubmitted the nomination in January 2018 to comply with a Senate rule, and the commerce committee again favorably reported it along party lines that month.

Myers, in a November 2017 confirmation hearing, said that NOAA’s satellite programs would be a priority for him if confirmed, while also endorsing greater use of data from commercial satellites.

Opposition to Myers’ nomination from Senate Democrats came from concerns about conflicts of interest given his leadership of AccuWeather, a commercial weather forecasting company owned by family members. Myers said at his confirmation there would be a “complete separation” from the company is he was confirmed to lead NOAA, but Democrats were skeptical.

“I am not convinced that Mr. Myers is that man, and I will be voting against his nomination,” Nelson said prior to the December 2017 vote by the commerce committee to advance the nomination, “but with the hope that Mr. Myers will prove me wrong if he is confirmed.” The White House hasn’t stated if it plans to resubmit the nomination once the new Congress convenes.

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