Living Science

The CIA isn’t the only intelligence agency in Washington, D.C. Not according to Rick Spinrad.

“We like to think of ourselves as being America’s environmental intelligence agency,” says the chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency’s role in weather forecasting, sustaining fishery economies and addressing climate change has a real impact on people’s lives.

In some cases, it’s a matter of life and death. Spinrad points to how improved forecasting has increased the lead-time for tornado warnings.

“If you can enhance the warning time for tornadoes out from 15 to 20 minutes, maybe even 25 or 30 minutes, boy, that has immediate and direct beneficial consequences,” he says.

Although Spinrad’s job is to provide strategic oversight of NOAA’s research programs, he can’t help but geek out on the technology they use. And he’s still excited by reports from the field.

“This morning I got an email from our folks who are busy flying through hurricanes, and they have launched a UAV — unmanned aerial vehicle — into the eye of a hurricane. First time it’s ever been done!” Spinrad says. “And you know what? Tomorrow, something equally exciting will hit the desk.”

Spinrad credits Mr. Rabinowitz, his eighth-grade teacher in CITY, New York, with seeding his fascination with science. After a class project to build an echo sounder failed, Rabinowitz challenged his student to try to figure out what went wrong, setting up interviews with Columbia University scientists. Spinrad was hooked.

A National Science Foundation summer session at Oregon State University when he was in high school cemented Sprinrad’s interest in science and introduced him to Oregon’s diverse geography. “I was a New York kid,” Spinrad says. “I’d never seen anything like Oregon. The coast was phenomenal. We went out to Central Oregon; I’d never seen geology like that. We went up on Mount Hood; I’d never recognized the vastness of the atmosphere.”

Oregon’s natural laboratories left an impression. Spinrad returned to Oregon State for his master’s in 1978 and doctorate in 1982, both in oceanography. After leading research programs at NOAA and the U.S. Navy, Spinrad came back to Corvallis in 2010, this time as Vice President for Research. The White House appointed Spinrad to his current position at NOAA in 2014.

While Spinrad’s responsibilities have grown, he makes time to stay connected to the data gathering and analysis that researchers are doing in the field. He believesunderstanding the real-world challenges they face makes him a better leader. Staying connected also gets Spinrad away from his desk - taking him on a plane flying through a hurricane and on every class of Navy submarine.

Rick Spinrad

Rick Spinrad | NOAA Chief Scientist