The Burford appointment - why it's so disturbing

Concern over the appointment of former EPA administrator Anne M. Burford, forcing her withdrawal as nominee for the chair of a major scientific advisory committee today, continues to reverberate. But most of the commentary on that puzzling appointment has missed two key points.

The entity in question is the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA). It advises the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Considering that committee membership qualifications in the past have stressed scientific competence, some of the other appointments to NACOA announced simultaneously with that of Mrs. Burford on July 2 may also seem questionable. Indeed, as the American Meteorological Society notes in its August newsletter, there is not a professionally trained atmospheric scientist among them.

Second, and most perplexing, the administration's fiscal 1985 budget for NOAA seeks to eliminate NACOA entirely! Reagan budgets for previous years have done this, too. Congress has annually reinstated NACOA and its funds. At this writing , there were bills before Congress to do so again. Nevertheless, we are left with the impression that President Reagan appointed Mrs. Burford and others to a committee he wants to abolish.

This mind-boggling maneuver can be best understood in the larger context of the administration's vision of NOAA itself.

NOAA has been a science-based, research-oriented agency. Its services, such as weather forecasting, have rested on this scientific foundation. This is why NOAA has been the lead United States agency in such major research endeavors as the Global Atmospheric Research Program, aimed at understanding the total ocean-atmosphere system, or the National Climate Program, which seeks the causes of climatic change.

The Reagan administration does not see NOAA in this light. It would prefer the agency to focus more on service and development of ocean resources and less - much less - on basic scientific research. NOAA's fiscal 1985 budget request reflects this view.

Its research budget would be trimmed from $244 million to $165 million. This proposed cut of about 32 percent contrasts sharply with boosts of 14 percent for the National Science Foundation and 11 percent for Environmental Protection Agency research - to say nothing of a 28 percent rise for defense research and development.

NOAA may be the leading agency for the National Climate Program, but its climate research funds would be trimmed by $3.3 million. The administration is emphasizing support of university research. Yet it would terminate the highly successful Sea Grant Program, which brings the resources of university scientists to bear on local marine environmental and development activities. The program had been funded at about $36.5 million annually. Or, to cite one more example, the budget request would reduce NOAA's participation in the national acid rain assessment effort from 11 percent to 4 percent, even though experts recognize the need for NOAA's data banks and expertise.

Here again, Congress has restored some comparable cuts in previous years, especially for Sea Grant. Obviously, though, the administration does not consider NOAA, which is housed within the Department of Commerce, to be an appropriate agency for its program to strengthen US scientific research. This feeling, of course, clashes both with NOAA's traditional self-image and with the traditional vision of NACOA, whose retiring chairman, John Knauss of the University of Rhode Island, is a distinguished research oceanographer.

This clash of views may well underlie President Reagan's consistent efforts to eliminate NACOA. But, since Congress has just as consistently reinstated it, the President has now stacked the committee with members who would seem more amenable to his views.

Besides trying to replace Knauss with the controversial - and nonscientific - Anne Burford, his appointments include: retired Navy Capt. John E. Bennett; William Brewster, director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation; geologist Lee C. Gerhard of the Colorado School of Mines; Judith Kildow, professor of ocean policy at MIT; Mary Ellen McCaffres, former administrative assistant to Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington; Nathan Sonenshein, assistant to the president of Global Marine Development Inc.; and Gordon Snow, assistant secretary for resources in California.

There is not a research oceanographer or atmospheric scientist on the list. Whether or not such scientists will be appointed to any of five remaining NACOA vacancies remained to be seen at this writing.

But there seems little doubt that the administration has moved to change the complexion of NACOA, should Congress again refuse to allow its termination.

Seen in this perspective, the nomination of an NACOA chairman who considers her job a joke, a ''nothing burger,'' seems much less perplexing.

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