Sour note on NOAA

Appointment of former Environmental Protection Agency chief Anne Burford to chair a major environmental advisory committee has roused again a mood of protest among environmentalists and has perplexed political analysts. The Reagan administration appears to have bought itself needless political trouble. Even White House staff chief James Baker has admitted that at least the timing was bad.

But there is a larger issue that both press and environmentalists appear to have overlooked.

The National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA) is not just another ''environmental'' panel. It is a high-powered scientific committee that advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Besides providing a wide range of services through the National Weather Service and the Coast and Geodetic Survey, NOAA carries out major atmospheric and oceanographic research. It is the key federal agency in these fields.

Quite apart from Mrs. Burford's record as EPA administrator, a post she left amid controversy, she has no scientific qualifications to head up NACOA. It is not a regulatory agency where management skills or political orientation constitute the chief qualification.

White House announcement of the Burford appointment just as a group of environmentalists showed up for lunch with the President was a notable gaffe.

But assigning a political appointee to a position formerly held by a long list of distinquished oceanographers is the more disturbing aspect of this affair. Not only has President Reagan handed his opponents a needless political opportunity, he has weakened the image he has carefully fostered as a President concerned with strengthening basic US scientific research.

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