Acting NOAA leader stresses importance of public-private partnerships

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GREENBELT, Md. — The acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the private sector is playing an increasingly important role in its work across the board, including space.

In a Jan. 21 speech at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon here, Neil Jacobs said the role of companies has evolved from providing value-added services based on NOAA data to partners in his agency’s core missions, such as weather forecasting.

“I really view a lot of folks in industry as partners, as stakeholders,” he said. “I no longer view the private sector as a value-add industry, but those who can help us achieve our mission.”

Jacobs said NOAA was studying ways to enhance that partnership. “We are in the process of trying to figure out public-private and academic relationships with our stakeholders to construct a win-win business model,” he said.

He did not go into specifics of what that business model would look like, or how it might apply to space-related services. While space “is involved in everything that we do,” he focused most of his speech to an audience of space industry representatives on weather forecasting, such as open-sourcing weather models and establishing agreements with Amazon, Google and Microsoft to host weather data on their cloud computing services.

One likely area for space-related public-private partnerships at NOAA involves commercial weather data, notably GPS radio occultation data. At last week’s annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Boston, NOAA said it wants to increase the number of radio occultation soundings, which provide temperature and humidity profiles of the atmosphere, from about 2,000 per day to 20,000 per day.

That increase will likely require the purchase of data from commercial satellites, something NOAA has already been doing on an experimental basis through its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program. However, NOAA acknowledged at the conference that it must still overcome challenges incorporating commercial data into its models, as well as how it can share that data with international partners.

Jacobs, whose current formal title is assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction performing the duties of under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, has been serving as the acting administrator of NOAA for nearly a year. The White House announced Dec. 18 its intent to nominate Jacobs to be NOAA administrator after Barry Myers, the Trump administration’s original nominee for the post, withdrew citing health issues. Myers, first nominated for the position in 2017, faced opposition from Senate Democrats in particular, and his nomination was never formally considered by the full Senate.

Jacobs, who took no questions and left immediately after completing his remarks, did not address his nomination. The Senate Commerce Committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Jacobs.