National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s
Placement in U.S. Government and its Implications
Elaine Liu1 and Avery Agles2
1BASIS Independent Silicon Valley, San Jose, CA, U.S.A
Government placement of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a marine and weather
research agency, under the Department of Commerce (DOC) has long been a source of debate. Many argue that NOAA
belongs under the Department of the Interior (DOI), an environmental executive department, rather than the DOC.
Here, we attempt to describe the political and scientific implications of NOAA’s placement. We start by outlining the
roles of US executive departments and agencies in environmental policy. A review of NOAA’s history and its place-
ment in the DOC shows past political impact on the agency, as NOAA’s mission shifts when a new administration
takes office. The possible implications of moving NOAA into the DOI is analyzed as compared to the movement of
the US Fish and Wildlife Service from the US Department of Agriculture to the DOI. Despite known issues with
NOAA’s placement in the DOC, placement in the DOI brings up issues that show the pros of NOAA being under the
DOC. Political and industrial influence on NOAA under the DOC is further examined in an effort to identify a better
placement for NOAA.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2021 report emphasises the urgency of the climate crisis. A
global temperature increases of 1.5°C will likely be reached by 2040, and if the world doesn’t halve its emissions by
2050, the temperature increase will surpass 1.5°C (Yale Climate Connections, 2021). Although individual citizens can
make their own positive impacts on the environment by living sustainable lifestyles and supporting green business,
large-scale emissions reductions occur at the federal level.
Federal environmental agencies such as NOAA are crucial in carrying out said changes. NOAA is a member
of the IPCC and is a key player in the U.S. government’s climate change policy efforts. They formulate Climate Action
Plans, develop climate models, and release an annual climate report (Rick Spinrad, 2021). However, NOAA is under
the DOC, which has primarily economic, industrial, and commercial goals. Political and industrial goals may clash
with climate change policy, which is a heavily political topic and often conflicts with industrial endeavours (i.e. the
oil and coal industries, the expense of going green, etc.). Political and industrial influence may hold NOAA back from
effecting necessary climate change policies. In this paper, we analyse how NOAA’s placement under the DOC affects
its scientific integrity and ability to carry out their agency mission. We discuss a past attempt to move NOAA from
the DOC to the DOI, compare NOAA mission statement changes between presidential administrations, study the
effects of another agency who was moved into the DOI to gauge the possible implications of moving NOAA into the
DOI, and analyse studies regarding political influence on various environmental agencies to understand where NOAA
fits best in the U.S. government.
Volume 10 Issue 4 (2021)
The U.S. Government’s Relationship to the Environment
The U.S. government’s responsibility to the environment is shared amongst four of the fifteen executive departments
as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which does not fall under any executive department. The four
departments are the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of
Energy (DOE), and the Department of Commerce (DOC). Unlike the EPA, which is dedicated to dealing with the
environment, the other four executive departments are only responsible for environment-related issues in the context
of its broader mission. Their indirect involvement in the environment makes it difficult for citizens to appreciate their
contribution to the environment and understand how that responsibility might be affected by economic and political
forces. In the following section, we attempt to delineate the role of NOAA within the larger governmental structure.
The EPA is the largest and likely most well-known U.S. environmental organization. The EPA was estab-
lished in 1970 by President Nixon in response to public and congressional concerns over the environmental wellbeing
of the U.S. It is an independent agency, and manages 10 regions across the U.S. They employ 14,297 employees and
received $9,237,153,000 for FY2021. The majority of EPA resources are used to conduct environmental research and
enforce national environmental legislation. The EPA has the broadest set of responsibilities of the high-ranking envi-
ronmental organizations, managing a wide range of issues, including but not limited to radiation protection, water
quality, air quality, and pesticide and chemical regulation.
The DOI handles land and resource management, wildlife conservation, and Native American affairs. It was
founded in 1849 to handle internal and domestic affairs. It has 18 Bureaus and Offices and employs 70,000 employees;
its notable agencies include the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Survey, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The DOI’s niche among the environmental departments is non-agricultural
land management in the form of national parks and refuges -- it manages ⅕ of U.S. lands, 348 reservoirs, and 410
national parks. The Fish and Wildlife Service also protects 544 national wildlife refuges. Despite the large swathes of
land the department manages, the DOI receives the second-to-lowest funding of all the environmental departments,
with a budget of $21.55 billion in Fiscal Year 2021.
The USDA was founded in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, who called it “The People’s Department.”
It is the largest environmental department with 29 agencies and 100,000 employees as of 2021. With 40% of U.S.
lands used for agriculture, it’s no surprise that the USDA is one of the best-funded executive departments, with a
FY2021 budget of $151 billion. The USDA also handles food and subsidies distribution, nutrition assistance, and food
safety. 80% of the USDA’s annual budget goes to the Food and Nutrition Service, which funds food stamps and other
nutrition assistance services. Despite the department’s focus being agriculture, its largest agency is the National Forest
Service, which manages the 25% of federal lands that are covered with forests and grasslands. Therefore, the USDA
is tasked with timber and wildfire management as well.
The DOE handles nuclear energy usage and research on energy sources and genomics. Founded in 1977, its
origins trace back to the Manhattan Project and the newfound need to regulate nuclear and general energy policy. It is
a small department of 14,000 employees and received $35.36 billion in funding for FY2021. Although most of the
DOE’s funding currently goes to nuclear security, the DOE conducts renewable energy research and helps pass im-
portant legislation such as the Clean Energy Act of 2007, which set a Renewable Fuel Standard and aimed to increase
fuel efficiency, security, and independence. The Offices of Environmental Management, Fossil Energy and Carbon
Management, Electricity, and Nuclear Energy are all involved with American energy policies.
The final “environmental” Department, the DOC, is not a traditional environmental department. In fact, it
has only one environmental agency: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The other agen-
cies in the department deal with finance and economics. The DOC was founded in 1903, having split off from the
Department of Labour. The NOAA receives the majority of the DOC’s funding. The DOC receives the least funding
of all executive departments, receiving $7.89 billion in FY2021, but employs 46,608 employees -- a little under four
times the number of DOE employees -- as of 2018.
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NOAA was founded in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Currently, NOAA’s mission emphasises “measur-
ing and predicting climate change impacts.” NOAA manages the National Weather Service, the National Ocean Ser-
vice, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, among other crucial weather and ocean
research services. NOAA predicts the paths and strengths of hurricanes and tropical storms. The agency also conducts
marine research and aids the Navy. In FY2022, NOAA has requested a $6,983,329,000 budget -- the agency’s largest
budget request to date.
A History of NOAA and its Placement in the DOC
NOAA’s roots reach back to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, which was formed in 1807 by President Jefferson.
When the U.S. Coast and Geodetic survey merged with the Weather Bureau (1870) and U.S. Commission of Fish and
Fisheries (1871) in 1970, NOAA was officially formed. The original plan was for NOAA to be placed under the DOI
alongside most non-agricultural environmental agencies.
Although President Richard Nixon originally stated the agency’s purpose as “better protection of life and
property from natural hazards… for a better understanding of the total environment… [and] for exploration and de-
velopment leading to the intelligent use of our marine resources,” NOAA’s mission statements and purposes have
shifted over time. NOAA under the Bush administration aimed “to understand and predict changes in Earth’s envi-
ronment and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our Nation’s economic, social, and environ-
mental needs.” -- the Bush administration put an emphasis on NOAA’s economic potential. The Obama administra-
tion’s NOAA focuses on a “triad” of values -- Science, Stewardship, and Service -- as well as mentioning researching
Climate Change as part of their mission (NOAA Blue Book, 2012). Under the Trump Administration, NOAA lists a
three-part mission: “1) to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts; 2) to share that
knowledge and information with others; and 3) to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources”
(NOAA Blue Book, 2018). The Biden Administration’s NOAA puts their emphasis on climate change; “Measuring
and predicting climate change impacts are core to NOAA’s mission” (NOAA Blue Book, 2022). The difference be-
tween the Bush Administration’s emphasis on NOAA’s economic value to the Biden Administration’s emphasis on
climate change research demonstrates the shift in NOAA’s mission and role in the U.S. government as climate change
becomes more and more urgent.
NOAA’s placement in the Department of Commerce has always been controversial. Most non-agricultural
environmental agencies are under the DOI, but President Nixon had a feud with his Interior Secretary Wally Hickel
when he founded NOAA. To irk Secretary Hickel, President Nixon stuck NOAA into the DOC, where it has remained
since then. During the Obama administration, governmental reorganisation nearly resulted in NOAA being moved
from the DOC to the DOI. Some argued that the DOI was “a more sensible place” (Obama, 2012) to put NOAA, as
NOAA’s work is similar to those of numerous DOI agencies. Others argued that moving NOAA to the DOI would
“erode the capabilities and mute the voice of the government’s primary agency for protecting our oceans and the
ecosystems and economies that depend on them” (NDRC, 2012).
Pro-reorganisation voices argued that NOAA belonged in the DOI due to NOAA having a similar mission to
many Interior agencies. For example, NOAA’s work with hydrology and forecasting aligned with the Interior’s U.S.
Geological Survey’s work with seismology and water resources. Lisa Brown, the executive director of the Government
Reform Initiative at the Office of Management and Budget, said, “By consolidating NOAA into Interior, we will
strengthen our stewardship and conservation efforts and enhance scientific resources” (Clark, 2012). Under the Obama
administration, NOAA’s mission was the Triad -- Science, Stewardship, and Service -- and Brown believed that
NOAA’s mission would be more achievable under the Interior. James Baker, former director of NOAA under the
Clinton Administration, stated the plan “makes sense” with the synergies between NOAA and Interior departments
such as the U.S. Geological Survey (Clark, 2012). An anonymous NOAA employee stated that “I think it paints a bad
picture when we are supposed to be managing and conserving marine resources and we are under the Department of
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COMMERCE” (Clark, 2012). According to Brown, the Obama administration believed that the Department of Com-
merce would benefit from being focused on only trade and business, while NOAA, whose mission and undertakings
were rather unrelated, was handled by the Interior (The Washington Post, 2012).
However, anti-reorganisation voices argued that NOAA’s power would be diminished under the large, busy
Interior. David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Emily Woglom of the Ocean Conservancy
both argued that “having an independent voice for the ocean and ocean science is most important” (The Washington
Post, 2012). Goldston elaborates that “If NOAA and Interior disagree now, it’s a dispute between two cabinet depart-
ments that has to get elevated to the White House to get worked out by third parties. If NOAA is a division of Interior,
the Interior Secretary can just shut NOAA up” (Goldston, 2012). Then-Alaskan Senator Mark Begich also stated that
he was “not sure burying NOAA in an already overburdened Interior is a good idea” (Government Executive, 2012).
In the end, anti-reorganisation voices won, as NOAA remains in the DOC to this day. Numerous media
outlets, environmentalists, and Congressmen were strongly anti-reorganisation, which appeared to have blocked the
reorganisation initiative. NOAA under the DOC would provide more value to support the environment as its mission
and voice will not be drowned out.
Implications of NOAA’s Placement
To further measure the possible impacts of NOAA’s movement from the DOC to the DOI, we can analyse the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The USFWS was moved from the USDA to the DOI in 1940, and by analysing
the changes the agency underwent, we can predict possible changes to NOAA if it is moved to the DOI.
Under the DOI, the USFWS gradually shifted away from predator and rodent control, and toward wildlife
and habitat restoration. This mission change shows how the executive department’s role has strong influence over its
agencies; the USDA would be more focused on rodent control as rodents affect agriculture, while the DOI manages
and restores lands. The USFWS was also able to partner with the National Park Service (NPS) to increase efforts on
habitat restoration; many arguments for moving NOAA into the DOI include NOAA being able to partner with similar
agencies like how the USFWS and NPS have cooperated. With the Secretary of the Interior being more active than
the Secretary of Agriculture, the USFWS doubled in size and combined fisheries with other wildlife conservation
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Museum Archives, 2021). This shift shows a positive change in the USFWS’s role in
the environment, as the USFWS was able to expand their agency and have greater access to resources they needed to
carry out their mission.
Although the USFWS appears to be faring better in the DOI than the USDA, it is not immune to political
influence. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the USFWS, NPS, and
USGS (all Interior departments) were all more prone to workforce reductions due to staff departure, retirement, and/or
hiring freezes than NOAA. The USFWS and NPS also reported that the greatest barriers to science-based decisions in
their agencies were the influence of political appointees in their agencies and limited staff capacity. The USFWS also
had low workplace morale. 47% of respondents who were NPS employees reported having been asked to omit the
phrase “climate change” from their work, compared to 10% of NOAA employee respondents (UCS, 2018).
Interior agency budget allocations also differ from Commerce budget allocations. The USFWS has requested
a budget of $3.6 billion for FY2022 and received $2.8 billion for FY2021 (Fish and Wildlife Service Budget Justifi-
cations, 2022). The USFWS and NPS were the most well-funded Interior agencies in 2021 and have requested the
highest budget out of all Interior departments for FY2022. However, their budgets fall short of NOAA’s FY2021
enacted ($5.65 billion) and NOAA’s FY2022 requested ($6.98 billion). Since the DOI has more agencies (many of
which are similar to NOAA and of similar importance to one another) to allocate their department budget to, Interior
agencies receive less funding than NOAA. In this case, NOAA has an advantage being under the DOC, as it receives
the majority of the DOC’s budget and has no competitors for its budget.
Under the DOC, NOAA may be spared from the stronger political influence that the DOI is subject to and
receives more funding. However, NOAA may also miss out on possible cooperation with Interior agencies such as the
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USGS and access to Interior resources. NOAA being surrounded by similar agencies may also draw attention away
from NOAA, or cause agency clashes for funding and attention rather than allowing better cooperation. The political
influence on the DOI may also differ from the political and industrial influence on the DOC. In the next section, we
will explore the political and industrial influence on NOAA specifically.
The Influence of Politics and Industry on NOAA
Due to NOAA’s placement under an executive department -- specifically, the Department of Commerce -- its funding
and therefore its scope of influence are strongly influenced by the political party in power and that party’s view on
business and industry. According to another study by the UCS, 38% of surveyed scientists at NOAA believed that
business and industry interests hindered the agency’s ability to make science-based decisions, and 29% of respondents
stated that senior decision-makers with backgrounds in industry have an inappropriate level of influence over deci-
Although these percentages may seem low and therefore not a large issue, the fact that there exist NOAA
employees who have been asked to omit the phrase “climate change” and felt pressured by industry interests in the
first place is problematic. When asked to elaborate on their response, an anonymous NOAA employee said that “In-
dustry is given power to direct policy involving regulations or scientific conclusions (and opinions based on the sci-
ence) that would affect them, thus providing outcomes that benefit them. This comes at the cost of our agencies ability
to accomplish our mission for the American public and natural resources we are entrusted to manage and conserve.”
Another added that “NOAA’s mission includes climate work. There is universal acceptance among the agency’s non-
political staff about the reality of climate change. We have to tiptoe around this issue, which is degrading.” (UCS,
2018). These employees’ experiences are clear examples of political and industrial influence on NOAA’s research
and service to the environment. With NOAA’s role becoming increasingly crucial in the U.S.’s fight against climate
change, a network of these instances could become large hindrances.
Although 64% of respondents at least agreed that NOAA adheres to its scientific integrity policy, the 2017
Hurricane Dorian controversy brought forth scepticism of NOAA’s scientific integrity in the face of politics. When
President Trump lied about NOAA’s predicted path of Hurricane Dorian to the press, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur
Ross had reportedly threatened to fire NOAA employees if they did not back up or at least turn a blind eye to the
President’s claims. The National Weather Service issued a follow-up statement partially agreeing with President
Trump, which drew backlash from fellow scientists about the scientific integrity of NOAA’s statement (Flavelle,
Friedman, and Baker, 2019). The Hurricane Dorian controversy shed light on how politics had driven NOAA to break
its scientific integrity policy; this concerning event raises the question of how many other times NOAA has broken or
will break their scientific integrity policy in the past or future, as the agency has proven itself capable of doing so.
As NOAA plays an increasingly important and publicized role in the U.S.’s response to climate change, it is
likely that its ability to act will become more entangled in politics. Aspects of this shift might be predicted by exam-
ining the EPA, which has traditionally been the brunt of political agendas. The same UCS study found that the EPA’s
“greatest [barrier] to science-based decisions” was “the influence of political appointees in [their] agency or depart-
ment.” The EPA also has the poorest workplace morale of all agencies surveyed and the lowest percentage of employee
respondents who agreed that their agency adheres to its scientific integrity policy (UCS, 2018). The Trump admin-
istration also sought to “terminate the Environmental Protection Agency” (H. R. 861, 2017). The FDA, CDC, and
other non-explicitly environmental agencies all fared better, with higher workplace morale and more adherence to
scientific integrity. The EPA seems to be targeted due to having an explicit environmental branding; its name has the
word “environmental” and it is an independent agency solely dedicated to the environment. This raises the question
of whether NOAA will become a similar target if it is placed under a known environmental agency such as the DOI.
NOAA’s annual budget is also influenced by politics. Figure 1 below shows NOAA’s yearly requested and
enacted budgets from FY2003-FY2022.
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Figu re 1: NOAA Requested and Enacted Annual Budgets From FY2003-FY2022. Red regions show periods of Re-
publican administration and blue regions show periods of Democratic administration. There is no publicly available
data for requested budgets from 2003-2006.
NOAA requests more funding during Democratic presidencies and less during Republican presidencies, as
Republican presidents are less likely to support environmental initiatives. The sudden drop in requested budget after
2017 appears to be influenced by the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations and even get rid of the
EPA -- a clear red flag that they wouldn’t support environmental agencies such as NOAA. NOAA’s budget is also
reviewed by the Secretary of Commerce before being sent to the President, and the Secretary of Commerce’s response
to the Hurricane Dorian controversy implied that he would not be supportive of pro-environmental endeavours.
NOAA’s mission statement in their budget proposals was the most specific during the Trump administration as well;
NOAA seemed to specify their mission to show the Secretary of Commerce, President Trump, and Congress the im-
portant tasks they were allocating the budget to. This works in their favour, as the enacted budget exceeds the requested
budget throughout the Trump administration.
NOAA’s enacted budget drops below their requested after 2011, despite 2008-2012 being a Democratic ad-
ministration. This is likely due to the Republicans winning the majority in the House of Representatives in 2011; since
the budget has to go through Congress, they could have cut NOAA’s budget, as Republicans are less inclined to support
climate change policies. From 2011-2017, at least one Chamber of Congress is held by the Republicans, and NOAA’s
enacted budget remains below their requested until 2018. In 2018, the Democrats regained the majority in the House
of Representatives, and NOAA’s enacted budget increases above their requested budget. NOAA also decreased their
budget requests dramatically in 2018; the Trump Administration's response to Hurricane Dorian and their attempted
termination of the EPA sent a clear anti-environmentalism message.
A limitation of this study is the fact that these analyses and explanations are done by humans with opinions. Although
we approached this study as objectively as we could, human bias is inevitable and could have affected our study. We
also had to make speculations behind the fluctuations of NOAA’s budget between 2003 and 2022. The main factor
we considered was the political party in power, but other unknown factors may have had an influence that we did not
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include. Overall, with the complexity and ambiguity of politics, we are unable to be certain that we were able to take
all factors that affect NOAA’s placement in the U.S. government into account.
I would like to thank my mentor, Mr. Avery Agles, for his contributions to this research project. With his guidance
and contributed ideas, Avery demistified the research process and helped me better understand the nuances of envi-
NOAA plays a unique and important role in the federal effort to protect the environment. Not only does NOAA
forecast hurricanes and conduct critical marine research, but it is a crucial player in the U.S.’s response to climate
change, which is both a political and commercial topic. Thus, the mission of NOAA is heavily influenced by politics
and commerce, which in turn impacts NOAA’s ability to effect change with their research. Interior agencies are more
susceptible to political influence and receive less funding than NOAA, but the DOC has more commercial motives
that can conflict with NOAA’s mission. After measuring the impact of said influences on NOAA versus USFWS,
NPS, and other Interior agencies, we conclude that NOAA will receive less influence and pressure under the DOC
than the DOI. NOAA will also be better funded and have a stronger voice than it would have if it were under the DOI.
There will still be political and commercial pressures on NOAA under the DOC, but less than if it were under the
DOI. There is no “perfect solution” to political pressure with an environmental agency in the U.S. government but
being under the DOC gives NOAA the best funding paired with the lowest political and commercial influence.
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