Hear from one of our incredible 2022 Service to America Medals® finalists, Craig McLean, who spent four decades at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration transforming our nation’s ocean exploration efforts to better understand how changes in ocean activity relate to global warming, severe weather and marine life. McLean is also joined by Benjamin Friedman, the agency’s longest serving deputy under secretary for operations, who oversees the programmatic and day-to-day management of NOAA’s national and international operations. McLean and Friedman discuss NOAA’s ongoing commitment to scientific integrity and strengthening public trust in government, as well as why those interested in protecting the environment and our oceans from the effects of climate change should explore federal careers.
This episode is the third of four highlighting some of our 2022 Service to America Medals® finalists. Nominate an outstanding public servant for a 2023 Sammies medal today through our nomination form!
- Read Craig McLean’s Service to America Medals finalist bio.
- Read Benjamin Friedman’s bio from NOAA.
- Learn more about NOAA.
- See opportunities for students at NOAA.
Loren DeJonge Schulman:
From the Partnership for Public Service, this is Profiles in Public Service—a podcast that shares the stories of the public servants who work on our behalf every day to make our country safer, healthier and more prosperous. We talk to career public servants, emerging leaders, journalists and more to better understand what it means to be a public servant… the incredible variety of careers possible in government… and how public service impacts all our lives. I’m Loren DeJonge Schulman,
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I’m Rachel Klein-Kircher.
Today’s episode highlights one of our incredible 2022 Service to America Medals finalists, Craig McLean, who recently retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also referred to as NOAA.
Throughout a career spanning 40 years, Craig’s leadership at NOAA has been a driving force in building our nation’s commitment to exploring the oceans. Because of him, we have an increased understanding of how changes in ocean activity relate to global warming, severe weather and marine life.
McLean has also taken part in several incredible deep ocean exploration missions, including a return to the Titanic in 2004 with renowned explorer Bob Ballard!
Loren DeJonge Schulman: We are also joined today by NOAA’s longest serving deputy under secretary for operations, Ben Friedman. In this role, Ben is responsible for overseeing the programmatic and day-to-day management of the agency’s national and international operations.
He has also been a vocal champion for workplace engagement issues in the federal government, including overseeing efforts to improve workplace culture, support diversity, equity and inclusion, and reduce instances of workplace harassment. Prior to joining NOAA, Ben spent 16 years as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: We’ll hear from both of our guests today about the value of studying the deep ocean, their agency’s’ commitment to scientific integrity and being a trusted resource for the American people, and how those interested in protecting the environment and our oceans from the effects of climate change can explore careers at NOAA or other federal agencies.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Welcome Craig and Ben!
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Rachel Klein-Kircher: So, Craig, we’re going to start with you today. And I want to share this quote that I have about you. It says, “Craig has led efforts to advance oceanographic scientific knowledge and discover deep ocean secrets, including new species, historical shipwrecks and undersea mountains. So, this to me, and I’m sure a lot of our listening public, does not sound like a government job.
So, that is just an incredibly cool way to describe a government employee. We would love to know what inspired you to join NOAA and dedicate your career to building the government’s commitment to exploring the oceans?
Craig McLean: Once I discovered NOAA, I was passionate about becoming part of the organization. I think that’s one of the challenges that we have is, in educating the public to realize what are the jobs, what are the attributes, what are the assets that the federal government does provide on a daily basis to the public? But it took me a while to find NOAA. I was a [Jacques] Cousteau enthusiast as a young boy. I wanted to learn scuba diving; I did. I wanted to get out on the water and on oceans; I did. And once I discovered that there was a federal agency where I could enjoy a sense of service to the public, and then also found out that there was a uniform service in NOAA where I could serve the public, it was just all written for me that this is the place I need to be. I did have wise counsel from advisors. I had an academic advisor in my undergraduate experience who told me, look after NOAA, try and find something there that would suit your interests. But once I discovered NOAA, it was just the home I had always been looking for to find an opportunity for a career. And as I say, and I will stress this, the knowledge that I was serving the public – rather than a corporate interest or a private interest or a smaller pool of people – but knowing that I was doing something in service of the public, was a real motivator for me.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And you have also been an advocate promoting NOAA’s cause to Congress and our international partners about the value of observing the oceans. In 2001, you launched NOAA’s Ocean Exploration program. And to my understanding, that’s the only federal program dedicated to exploring the deep ocean.
And I think you yourself have described that as a NASA-like exploration agency, but for the under seas. So how have you made this case to Congress and our international partners to really care about this?
Craig McLean: There are so many competing subjects that the Congress and other players have to deal with. In fact, the ocean voice alone is a voice of many, many individual instruments. Is it the coral reefs? Is it the fish? You name it, it’s everything. So, once you start talking about what is necessary for the oceans, I found very quickly that there were sympathetic and understanding people in Congress who were ready to jump onto this, but it was sorting through the collection of very competing interests, very highly competing interests, that you have to just keep pushing, keep reminding folks of the importance, have a succinct and lean message, but one that could get through and let people know how important this work is. But also, how little we really do know about this important element of planet earth: the oceans.
So, members of Congress came forward; they still do. They’re still enthusiastic about this. And on the international side, many countries are interested in doing this. They just don’t, in all cases, have the resources that the United States does and where we were willing to team up and become real rich and long-term partners with other countries. The willingness of these other countries to work with the United States is number one. The U.S. leads. And as the U.S. leads, other countries do follow. But also, being able to provide capacity development through our scientists and teaching local scientists in these other countries how to do this work. We offered advances very early on in NOAA’s history very early, even before I was engaged in this international work to China, for example, and, more recently to countries like Indonesia, South Africa, countries in the Pacific, where the small islands’ developing states are really coming on. So it’s a song waiting to be sung. You just need to strike up the band, raise the baton and start leading the orchestra and people join in readily.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: I would add your obvious passion for the subject matter, on top of all of the other things that you noted, that you need to line up in order to be successful. And I’ll let Loren ask the next question about that.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: This is the one I’m most excited at hearing about, but probably a tough one for you, that after the nearly 40 years you’ve had working within NOAA and as a leader of the agency, what accomplishment in your career are you the most proud of? Or did you enjoy working on the most?
Craig McLean: I’m most proud of the relationships that I had built throughout government in order for us to be successful in creating an ocean exploration program. Being able to implement a program that started with just $4 million. And the challenge there was with $4 million, what square nautical mile of ocean do we want to go and explore and survey? Because working in the ocean is very expensive. But by building partnerships that we already had established trust and groundwork, and then expanding from that, really allowed us to take that program and leverage highly and get a lot done with even just that 4 million. And once you show the Congress that you’re capable of generating results with just $4 million, it’s easy for them to say, well, why don’t you have eight next year? And why don’t you have 16 and then 24? And that’s the rate and tempo that, that program had grown it’s up to nearly 50 million today.
But what I will say is that at $50 million, we’re just a speck on the financial spreadsheet of what human space exploration is all about. And I have friends who are astronauts. I have a colleague from NASA who’s also a finalist and I respect him greatly, when we look at the juxtaposition: don’t reduce space spending, just increase ocean spending. I think it’s important. But for me, that’s my most proud moment. What my colleagues would tell me: it was the scientific integrity activities that we were engaged in during the course of the Hurricane Dorian, I’ll just call it a squabble, if you will. But there, I believe that I did what I needed to do because it was my moral and personal responsibility and also that of the job that I was in.
But I got to tell you, the most fun I had in my job was looking out the porthole of a deep sea submersible and being five feet away from the wreck of the RMS Titanic. That one just shut me down. My circuit board was closed after that.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: I’m so glad you mentioned that last one, because I am looking at your bio and thinking like, okay, all of this is really impressive, but like, I can’t imagine what that was like to be that close to the Titanic. So what an incredible opportunity and like what a great way to sort of showcase the amazing work that all of you do, in a way that is accessible to folks who don’t study these issues as much.
Craig McLean: Shipwrecks and nautical history is the easiest way to grab the public’s attention on ocean subjects and social scientists tell us that, surveys tell us that. It works. National Geographic has done a marvelous job of doing that and they were our partners in the more recent expedition to the Titanic, but the Titanic visit was strategic.
It wasn’t just a public impression opportunity. Congress had asked NOAA to work with the State Department to develop an international instrument to protect the Titanic. And I felt that there was an opportunity for us to bring world experts and we did. We brought Dr. George Bass, who was the premier underwater archeologist and also a gent from the park service who was very, very well versed in undersea exploration, Larry Murphy.
And I thought when the day comes that we need to offer testimony as to why such an international agreement would be sufficient, we needed the voices of those experts. And of course, we also had as a partner and participant, Dr. Bob Ballard, who was the discoverer of the Titanic. So we built those strategic partnerships, very purposefully.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: So for you, Ben, your background is very varied and I understand you have degrees in molecular biology, law, theology. Very interested to know what motivated you to apply your very unique combination of education and the various experiences you have and your skills to NOAA? What, what drove you to this agency?
Ben Friedman: I do have a varied background. And I did practice as a lawyer. I went to law school. Educational background is a story in, unto itself that I won’t bore you with now. But after graduating law school, I clerked for a year and then I came into the Department of Justice, and I was actually a federal prosecutor for 16 years. Not even in the environmental world. I was doing criminal cases, 12 years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. And I did everything. I tried over 60 cases at the local and federal level. I oversaw three different trial units. I was in the front office of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. for several years.
And really, I got to this point in my career when I looked around and I said, well, I’ve kind of done what I wanted to do at DOJ. And I came to the realization that if I’m going to stay a public servant and I’m going to stay in the government and I come to that decision, I can move around. I can actually go to other agencies. I don’t have to just stick in one agency. There’s great opportunities out there. I’d always been interested in environmental work and a position came open at NOAA that was kind of a mid-level manager position heading up their enforcement section. It actually fit in with what I had been doing at DOJ, in enforcement work.
And so, it was kind of a natural transition and it really turned out to be the best decision of my life. I was able to move up quickly in the organization. Have had so many fascinating experiences. I mean, Craig, the stories Craig tells gives you a sense of some of the excitement and passion that we have within NOAA.
So, it was really a great move, but it really stemmed from this idea that, Hey, if you’re a government employee, you can move around, you can try different things. You can move to different agencies. You don’t just have to stay in one place.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And what a cool way to combine, you know, criminal prosecution and you talked about enforcement, blending that with your passion for environmental work. The two of you, like, I just love the enthusiasm in your voices.
So now Ben, I have the very wonky DC-esque question for you. For many of our listeners, they would not know what a deputy under secretary for operations does, so could you give us a brief snapshot of your day in the life and, and what your job is.
Ben Friedman: Sure. So let me start with what NOAA does, because I think a lot of people don’t realize the scope of what NOAA does. So, we like to say that our mission takes us from the surface of the sun to the bottom of the ocean. And that’s really true. We have satellites that literally look at the surface of the sun and monitor what we call space weather, which can impact electrical grids, et cetera on earth.
And, as you heard from Craig, we go to the bottom of the ocean in deep sea exploration, and we do everything in between. So, atmospheric sciences, the National Weather Service, anything involving the oceans, we do. And I am currently in the top career position at NOAA and in that role, just the way NOAA is structured, I basically oversee the entire organization.
So I oversaw Craig when he was in charge of our research division. I oversee the weather service, the ocean service, our satellite service, and OMAO, which is the NOAA corps, those who operate our ships and planes. I also oversee all the mission support offices. Obviously, it is impossible to actually oversee all of that. It’s a very large organization, a very complex organization. So really what I do in my role, about half of it is putting out fires and supporting whatever the issue of the day is. The other half is really focusing on priorities and priorities that I think are important for the agency.
Part of that is getting the word out about what we do and promoting NOAA. Part of it is advocating on behalf of NOAA, a large part of it is making sure we have the resources we need within NOAA to do our job. So, budget and personnel. And then a big, big part of my job and probably one of my biggest priorities has been really just creating the environment for success: focusing on workforce issues that will create the ability for us to be productive and meet our mission. And that includes a lot of focus on diversity and inclusion, a lot of focus on, most recently, burnout issues in the workforce, things like that. Harassment of various forms. And again, just making sure we are creating environment where people want to be here, where they’re going to stay here, where they feel like they have a voice and they’re engaged. So that’s, that’s a lot of what I do.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: I want to switch gears a little bit to talk about the issue of scientific integrity. I’ll ask you both about this generally, then I would love to hear a couple of specific examples. I don’t know that the American people are always aware of how much they rely on the federal government for some fundamental data and information that impacts their daily lives.
And so, some obvious ones are around the weather, around GPS, around so many other points of inquiry and exploration that are shaping how they get advice, how they get warning, how they understand the world. And that scientific integrity of the federal government is so critical to making sure that those are reliable. And I know that this is actually one of the first policy memos that President Biden put out at the beginning of his administration was around scientific integrity.
So, Craig, I’ll actually start with you, if you wouldn’t mind just telling us a little bit about what do you think about the issue of scientific integrity as it relates to NOAA’s mission? How do these intersect and why is it important?
Craig McLean: NOAA’s mission is vital to the American public. Every day, the American public gets a weather forecast from NOAA. NOAA is not here to tell you whether it’s going to be sunny in Ocean City or in Laguna Beach. Our mission is to save lives and property. And the integrity of the voice of every one of our weather forecasters– and each of those voices is backed up by legions of scientists, researchers, satellite experts bringing all of this together– the public has to trust that.
So any inference of mistrust that is generated in order to distract the public from really trusting this voice, which we’ve worked for decades in order to perfect and continually do every day, that debases the security of the American public, that debases the safety of the American public. And I’m just talking about weather. When you start looking now at climate, and when we had legions of deniers or distractors from the climate science, that was remarkably intellectually and personally insulting to our NOAA and academic colleagues that work in our science enterprise to be debasing the proper understanding of what’s happening. The joke is over. We look around us and that which was forecast 30 years ago and denied 30 years ago is happening today. So the importance of the work that we do is paramount. There’s an entire industry of billions of dollars in fishing that NOAA has to regulate.
Oddly enough, many people don’t realize that NOAA is in fact a regulatory agency. The National Marine Fishery Service of NOAA conducts the most appropriate and well-balanced means of sustaining fisheries populations through any fishery management regime in the world and does so in a very public setting and very public process.
So we do a lot of that. Any erosion of that trust has to be jumped on like the first embers of a forest fire. You stamp it out as soon as you can see it because you don’t want it to gain ground and get ahead. It’s very important to let truth be told, whether the truth is unflattering to a scientific theory that might have been generated or whether it’s reinforcing, but the importance is that that science is truthfully told and that we as a government entity with only one goal in mind, which is the safety and the integrity of the public, our economy, our lives, our property, that’s our role. And we have to stay vigilant to make sure that the truth is told all the time.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: In your career, you’ve, I’m sure you’ve had multiple experiences where these questions and how to address them were very resident in your mind. And I know that in the last several years, you’ve observed parts of the federal government or your agency making statements that you were worried would be compromising to the public’s trust in scientific integrity and of NOAA in particular. Why did you feel it was important to speak out at that point in time?
Craig McLean: Well it’s number one, it was for those reasons I described. We have to continue to protect the public’s value and willingness to accept NOAA’s voice. NOAA constitutes the expertise in each of these subjects for the federal government, by law, and also by practice, we have authorizations that tell us, this is what you shall do. And we do it very well.
The other point is that I had an obligation in the roles that I played to make sure that the scientific integrity policy of NOAA is implemented appropriately and consistently, and where I saw a variance to that, I would not have been doing my job. But I actually was challenged by a member of the former administration as to where and why I had the authority to raise the voices that I was raising.
And my answer was simple. Number one, I was the acting chief scientist. So that is part of the responsibilities that I had to implement these policies. Number two, as the director of research, the assistant administrator for research in NOAA, I’m responsible for the implementation and sustaining these policies.
But number three, I’m a NOAA employee. Every NOAA employee is empowered by our policy to raise a concern of scientific integrity, regardless of where it was coming from. The challenging thing for us in the instance of, for example, Hurricane Dorian, was that the actors that were perpetrating this harm to NOAA were actually in the Department of Commerce and in the Office of the President. And our NOAA scientific integrity policy doesn’t have a reach for that. We can only go as far as NOAA’s own self-policing or self-regulatory jurisdiction. But what I was very gratified to see was when the president established the National Task Force on Scientific Integrity. I was flattered to be able to be asked to join that and participate and I saw how this is really elevating the stature.
And if it happens at the White House level, on down throughout the entirety of the federal government, we’re in a good position. One more note I’ll just add is that NOAA does have one of the most widely recognized and strongest scientific integrity policies.
And I want to give the recognition to our current administrator who as administrator, he’s a political appointee. At the time he generated this, he was a career public servant and Dr. Rick Spinrad was very much the engine behind giving NOAA the strength of a policy that we do have.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Just a quick reminder for our listeners, Sharpie-gate, some of you may remember around Hurricane Dorian that President Trump made a controversial claim that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama severely, despite contradictory forecasting from the National Weather Service.
And one of the instances we’re referencing here is when Craig sent NOAA employees an email saying that the statement prioritized politics over NOAA’s mission and compromised public trust in the agency, since it provides research that forms the basis of the National Weather Service’s forecast. This moment here is one we’re kind of harkening back to of the absolute criticality of elevating that scientific integrity when lives are at stake, when it’s part of the mission and part of the role of public service.
Ben, I’d actually be curious for you to build on that. The Partnership has been doing a lot of work around public trust in government over the last year or so, and exploring different reforms or interventions or ways to engage with the American people to help build their trust. And I’d love to hear from you how you see NOAA’s commitment to scientific integrity and their overall policy and approach as a model for other agencies who are also working to build this faith with the American public.
Ben Friedman: Let me just say, and this is just building on Craig’s response, that I think it goes beyond NOAA. Craig made an excellent argument and lot of excellent points about how important it is for the public to trust NOAA and NOAA’s science. But it really goes beyond that.
I mean, this is a basic tenant, I think, of the social structure. And if citizens cannot trust the government, if citizens cannot trust the science that we’re putting out, if they think there’s political influence over the science that we’re putting out, then it really starts to cause a crumbling of the social structure.
People have to be able to rely on us. And NOAA is part of the federal government and plays that important part of the federal voice.
So as far as being a model, as Craig said, we have, I think, what is the gold standard for a scientific integrity policy within NOAA. It has a number of protections in it, a number of enforcement mechanisms in it. And I know others have looked at it and emulated it. And I would like to see that continue. I think it’s also important as Craig mentioned, this has to get raised to a higher level. NOAA can’t do it all. This needs to get to the department level, we’re part of the Department of Commerce, so it needs to be part of the department. It really needs to be at the White House level so that there are scientific integrity principles placed throughout government coming from the highest source, the White House, so that no matter who’s in office, what politics there are, the public can trust our science.
The other way I think we can be a model is by doing exactly what Craig did, during Sharpie-gate, which is standing up and being vocal and, sticking your neck out for scientific principles and making clear that the science we do is of the highest importance, and that we will not allow politics to interfere with our science. And I think that has served as a model for other agencies. They see people like Craig stepping up and it allows them to feel like, yeah, we need to do that as well.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah. I’d like to tie together a few things that we’ve been talking about. You know, Craig, when you mentioned doing the right thing, not just as a leader, but you said every NOAA employee is empowered and Ben, you started to talk about the workforce, as well in your description of what you do day to day.
So there’s all of the outward facing work that NOAA is doing, but then there’s the entire workforce. And you mentioned Ben, harassment and burnout, and just some very real issues for your employees. And, we’d love for you to share more about what are some of those management challenges that you are grappling with regarding workplace culture and working towards a more equitable and inclusive workplace environment at NOAA.
Ben Friedman: This has always been a critical issue for me from the moment I came into NOAA. I came from the Department of Justice, as I mentioned from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in DC, which was an extremely diverse organization. NOAA was less diverse, and I recognized that, many other people recognized that, and so we put forth a lot of effort to try to diversify NOAA. We have really good connections with minority serving institutions through a program called the Educational Partnership program, where we fund scholarships and programs and many minority serving institutions, and we put a lot of effort into getting graduates of those institutions into NOAA.
But then, frankly, George Floyd happened and there was a social outcry and we really doubled down on our efforts within NOAA and we realized, this really had to be an all hands on deck effort. And we put a lot of resources into it, and we came up with diversity and inclusion strategic plans at the headquarters level. In each sort of our line and staff offices, we did a lot of training. We made sure that we had diverse hiring panels. We stepped up our recruiting efforts and really the goal here is, yes to diversify NOAA, but it’s not just to diversify NOAA just for diversification sake. It’s really because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also because we represent the American public and we have to look like the American public for the American public to trust us. And particularly like for the weather service where we are, you know, communicating with public across the board in all communities, we have to be able to speak with the voices of those communities.
This is really a part of something that we call total worker health, which involves several ideas that we bring together, including diversity and inclusion, including burnout, which I mentioned earlier, including various forms of harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, other forms of harassment. And the goal here is that we’re looking at these across the entire organization and all these issues in relate, because if you have harassment of any form, you’re not going to have an inclusive environment. It’s going to be hard to promote diversity. If people are burnt out, they’re more likely to be in a harassing environment. So all these things in a relate. And so we’re really trying to look at the entire organization and the entire health of workers as we make decisions with the goal, again, of having a workplace where people want to come, that they want to be a part of, where they feel like they have a voice well, where they are engaged and they’re excited to be here. You know that in turn, increases productivity, helps us meet our mission, which is these days nothing short of saving the world from climate change.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Speaking of, bringing the next generation of leaders into NOAA. What advice would you have for young students, young professionals who are passionate about the things that you’re passionate about, who are deeply excited about the ocean, who are invested in understanding and addressing the effects of climate change on our coasts and our weather, who are excited about marine life, or just want to apply their education or skills to the mission that you have at NOAA? What kind of advice do you have for them and what should they know about opportunities that exist there?
Ben Friedman: Let me just start with the opportunities at NOAA. There are a large number of opportunities at NOAA for internships and fellowships. And they’re easily found online, there’s a website that collects all these together. If you just type in NOAA internships, you’ll find it.
At the undergrad level, we have two main programs, but a dozen of other smaller ones. The two main programs are our Hollings Program, which basically provides two years of scholarship money and a 10-week internship for rising juniors. The second program for undergrads is the Educational Partnership Program, which I mentioned before where with minority serving institutions, we again, provide two years of scholarship money plus internship opportunities at NOAA. And let me say, this is across the board. While we are a STEM agency, it’s not just in STEM that we hire from these programs or that we bring people in. It’s social sciences. It can even be mission support, it can be a broad range of areas.
At the graduate level, our main fellowship program is the Knauss or Sea Grant Fellowship Program, which is a well-known program for recent graduates. We bring in just incredible talent every year through this program, providing one-year fellowships for recent graduates to come in and experience NOAA and get their foot in the door.
But again, there’s many other opportunities within NOAA as well. Each of the line offices, the weather service, et cetera, have their own internship programs and you can easily find those online. Let me step back though. Those are just the opportunities. I guess the advice I would give individuals who are interested in our fields is one, go for it. A lot of people, I can’t tell you how often I hear particularly young people say, “Oh, I could never get in there, or I could never do that. You know, that seems too extreme.” Listen to Craig’s story. You know, Craig was just a guy who loved the ocean and liked to go scuba diving. And he found a way to get into NOAA and rise to the very top of the organization. And that is not unusual within NOAA. So go for it. You know, take the classes you’re interested in that would get you into NOAA. Do the activities and the internships and the work experiences that you need to get into NOAA. We’re always looking for good people. We’re always hiring.
Then the second piece of advice I would give more broadly is, it’s all about relationship building. Form those relationships with your colleagues, with your peers, with those who are in our science areas. It’s amazing. It’s a relatively tight community and it’s really good to build those relationships and move into those circles because that often ends up opening up doors down the road. Craig, why don’t you follow up on that? And tell me everything I missed.
Craig McLean: No, you didn’t miss a thing. Ben, you nailed it. And I’ll just offer a little bit of color to that. What should one prepare for, the academic preparation, the experiential preparation? Volunteer. Get out and volunteer. That opened doors for me as an undergraduate, which led me to the graduate level of cruises that I was on while still a junior in college.
The other point I would make is that, what you start out in may not be where your career eventually takes you. We had a very talented biological oceanographer who eventually wound up leading our laboratory in atmospheric chemistry and gases and tracking the carbon dioxide, the methane, the greenhouse gases all over the world. That is the definitional source of information for climate change. I knew a colleague who, prior to his PhD, was in trapeze work in circuses. We have very diverse people. I was a commercial diver for a brief period of time before I came into NOAA, so there’s a little bit of relevancy there. But I also knew someone who early on in his career traveled, basically, freight trains for a couple of years before deciding what that individual wanted to do with their career.
So my point being is that you don’t have to be cast as a biological oceanographer, marine biologist, whatever, right from the beginning. And look at Ben’s background, and my background too. I have an undergraduate degree in zoology. I have a law degree, but I don’t have a PhD in science, but I stayed applied to these areas throughout my career. Look at the diversity of Ben’s background and realize there’s a fit for everyone in the diverse work that we have to do, not just in NOAA, but throughout government. So if you want to be in EPA, you don’t necessarily have to be an environmental chemist to be successful at EPA. And any other agency could fill in that blank as well as it can for NOAA.
So, I would say, find in your heart, in your mind, where is your passion? Is it for serving something larger than yourself? Is it something more than a weekly paycheck? And since you’re goingn to be doing this for the rest of your career, make it count. Don’t make it about the money and, and just find your path. And one last plug: professional societies are a wonderful way to expand your network exponentially. Find a professional society that’s relevant to the interests that you have and get engaged.
Every professional society worth your time has student chapters in it and very interested and engaged career professionals, ready to help the students.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Rachel, this really just builds on the point you make every time that you can do any possible job in the federal government, but not just that, you can take any possible path to get there. There is no one straight and narrow into these incredible roles and careers that you’ve had.
One last question for you, both. I mean, NOAA does so much amazing work that we’ve talked about today that has direct public impact education engagement. What are some of your favorite ways that NOAA shares its work or engages with the public? Whether just from an educational standpoint or from maybe a recruitment standpoint as well?
Ben Friedman: One of my favorites, and I’ve mentioned this a couple times, is the Educational Partnership Program with minority institutions. This is just an incredible way, we put a lot of resources into this. We work with minority serving institutions across the country at both the undergrad and graduate level. And we support some of their research in our science fields. And I just love working with the young people that come out of these programs. I love trying to recruit them into NOAA. I love seeing their careers from the bottom as they build up and go from interns, to employees, to managers. It’s a great program and I really enjoy being a part of it.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Craig, what about you?
Craig McLean: I’ll offer a little bit of a twist, no disagreement with Ben. We have amazing programs like the National Marine Sanctuary Program, which has educational material of their own and ability to take people on virtual tours of these precious underwater areas. We have the Ocean Exploration Program, which has really grown into a public communication tool and vehicle. With climate, the most wonderful website, climate.gov, which compiles everything from across all federal entities and academia to really give the, the curious public, a true understanding of what we do know and what we don’t know about climate. By the way, most of it, we know. There are very few unknowns. Now, how to get there, I think one of the greatest challenges that many agencies have is that we don’t have the ability to market the intellect that’s inside of our agency, right? We don’t have an advertising department. Now, the closest I see to that, and I think it should be the stated ambition of every federal agency to achieve this same level, is the excitement and the challenge that was upon America when NASA was created.
And with that excitement and challenge, and for many reasons, NASA was given the opportunity in their authorization to be very aggressive about STEM outreach, recruitment, and engagement. Now I’ll note that little old NOAA, and I’m quoting Senator Ernest Hollings, who was an esteemed and passionate supporter of NOAA, but little old NOAA – that’s where the quote stops – but NOAA has the same authorizing language that NASA has to be pursuing STEM and using the oceans as an opportunity to inform the public as to how to, to use this as an educational opportunity, a tool and a magnet, but we don’t have the resources. And most other federal agencies don’t. NASA has something that is very precious and our colleagues over there guard it preciously indeed, but we need to be doing a little bit more of that.
And I think that’s something that more voices understanding [that] the value of government, as the Partnership helps us achieve, can be a tool and an instrument in terms of opening the doors of awareness to young people who might not be thinking “I could go and work for the government for these particular areas.” We have to reach the people better than we’re able to do thus far.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Craig you have, without realizing it, summed up the exact purpose behind this podcast and so much the work we do here at the Partnership. So thank you both so much for this wonderful conversation, for all that you’ve taught us about the amazing work that you do, and the incredible opportunity that you’ve opened up to our listeners to be able to dive deeper into this.
And that was a terrible pun, but I just had to do it.
Craig McLean: Oh, I love it. I love it.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Thank you both.
Craig McLean: Thank you for having us.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: So Loren, the first person I ever met who worked at NOAA, this was many years ago and it was during a training of a lot of different government agencies. And I remember listening to him, describe his job. And during the break, I pulled him aside and I said, okay, your job sounds really cool. And I’m sure everyone says this to you, but tell me like the straight scoop, like, what is it really like? And he just gave me this secretive smile and he is like, no, it really is that cool. I love it. And you could just feel that with Ben and Craig today, like their passion was loud and clear for me.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: The thing that I really enjoyed more frankly, than hearing about like the work that they do, is the very interesting paths they took to get there, and it made me feel much more so than ever that public service is actually sort of the career goal that we are talking about here. It’s not just that you can do any job you want to within the federal government. It’s that you can do public service in so many different kinds of ways that you can wake up in the morning saying, “I want to make the world a better place and serve our country,” and that the entry point for that can be any number of different doors and that the paths in there are wide ranging and you can just choose to do a reverse and go a different way, pretty much whatever you would like to, and you will find a way to do that. And that to me, like it sounds like a, not a, a large distinction, but to me like that is such an eye opener of actually, it’s public service. It’s not that it’s a job, it’s a public service element.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Right. And you know, for Craig to take the kernel of what am I excited about when I’m 20 or however old and Ben to take the, almost like he was already part way, a good part into his career. And then almost like that, that menu of like cataloging here are the skills I have, here are the things I like to do, here is what I’m passionate about. And he knitted it together to find like that perfect place for him. And so, yeah, not just, you can do anything in government. You could actually do anything at NOAA itself, which was really fun. And I loved Craig’s pep talk, like if I had heard that 30 years ago, that would’ve been awesome.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: And I love the story, like there was an acrobat who worked at the circus and is now doing all these things and like the, all of that was fantastic. Something I do a lot in my day job at the Partnership is look at how the government uses data and evidence in its work and it’s, it’s easy in looking at it just to make it sound as dry and boring as I just said, like data and evidence, but it’s really about how government uses and has access to all of this incredible information, knowledge, insight, that if not only government has access to, government often has access to first and what do they do with that. And to hear that translated through the lens of scientific integrity and the duty of government to use that for the safety and security of the American people. That to me is the most compelling piece of that. It’s not just like, are you transferring and sharing this data effectively?
It’s are you using it in a way that is most responsible and most aimed at that public service ethos that we were talking about before.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And in a common, good way that’s equitable, you know, information that everybody needs. Everybody should have access to. I mean, they took that so very solemnly. And I mean, I actually had chills when Craig ran through like, as a leader, as an expert, as a scientist, but then he said as a NOAA employee, so that everybody should, you know, also be following and empowered to have that same level of integrity because yes, they are serving the public and they should have the right to. I mean, it’s their responsibility to be honest and yes, I have access to this data, and this is the story the data is telling us.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: And that, just tying it back to the work that we’ve done on trust in government here at the Partnership, I mean, everything that we’ve learned is that the negative views that people have of government are around the politicization and the politics as they intersect with the work that government does.
Craig said something in one of the events instances he talked about. His quote was that, “We have no room for bringing a political critique into something as urgent as the public’s trust and understanding the voice of government when we say this is, or this is not what’s going to happen with a hurricane all based on science.”
And to me like that is just an indisputable statement, but also one that saying it really brings home what it is we are relying on NOAA for. That this is not the political element of oceanic exploration, whatever they may be, that this is really about lives, opportunity, risk, responsibility, and good government.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And tying back to what you had asked about, you know, ethics and what the current administration is attempting to do, you know, we’ve heard time and again, just sort of like the scientists and experts in various fields being dumbfounded, that there’s even a question about the information that they present and very much tying back to all of your research and public trust and how critical this is.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: I do appreciate their recognition that there is an engagement effort around this, that there is a communications element, that there’s a way to build that bridge between the science and the data and the audiences that they’re working with in creating openings of interest in the American people is so critical.
Craig talked about how shipwrecks are just like a great entry point for the American people to get interested in these issues and the opportunities they have to be able to showcase and highlight data around climate and around marine life and other things in really kind of captivating ways. That to me is something that it’s certainly not brand new, but it’s not something that is always a given within federal agencies, that they have the capacity and budget for that. But to be able to see that joy of what we’re doing here come out through what their priorities are, I think is, is really important and a great model for others.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah, absolutely. For me, the conversation was just interesting for so many different reasons, like the range of the scientific exploration that they’re doing. And this, I love when he said, let’s not cut back on NASA, but like, we can have some funding too. You know, like, and I, and I had this, like I imagined by the end, like some really cool partnership of the two agencies where something, I don’t know, like I get back from sort of like our superhero analogies that we use. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I think there’s a kernel of something there.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Yeah, there’s an Avengers or an X-Men concept here, buried deep within what everyone does within government. Well, Rachel, I love that we have amended our theory that you can do any job in government to actually take any path, to do any job in government.
So, thank you for this amazing conversation.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah. Thank you, Loren.
Maggie Moore: Hi, I’m Maggie Moore from the Partnership for Public Service. After hearing from today’s guest, you hopefully learned even more about how important the federal government is to the health, safety and security of our nation, and how incredible its employees are.
If you know an outstanding public servant who deserves to be recognized, we want to know about them! Please nominate them for a 2023 Sammies by going to Service to America Medals dot org or check the link in our show notes.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: So that’s our show, thanks so much for listening! If you haven’t already, please follow or subscribe to “Profiles in Public Service” wherever you get your podcasts.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: You can also check this episode’s show notes to learn more about today’s topic and be sure to follow the Partnership for Public Service on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram to find out about future episodes!
Loren DeJonge Schulman: “Profiles in Public Service” is created by the Partnership for Public Service.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: Our writer and producer is Abigail Alpern Fisch.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: Our script supervisor is Barry Goldberg.
Rachel Klein-Kircher: And our executive producer is Jordan LaPier.
Loren DeJonge Schulman: See you next time!