Tribute to Robert M. White, and Learning the Role of Federal Coordinator

By Alan Hecht

Bob White

Bob White

On June 14, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) will host a symposium in honor of Bob White who died in October, 2015.  Bob was a leader on weather and climate and served as the director of the United States Weather Bureau from 1963 to 1965, director of the Environmental Science Services Administration from 1965 to 1970, and the first administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 1970 to 1977.  He was president of the National Academy of Engineering from 1983 to 1995 and was the first chairman of the World Climate Conference in 1978.

I started my own career in government as the program manager for the Climate Dynamics Program at the National Science Foundation and it was Bob who convinced me to join NOAA to serve as the Director of the National Climate Program Office (NCPO). This was a tough job, involving twelve different federal agencies that did not always have the same starting point. It was Bob White who helped me resolve conflicts and guide me on how best to coordinate across agencies.  Bob was also a strong supporter of advancing atmospheric and ocean science so needed to document the reality of climate change.

Thanks to him, I came to realize that the role of a coordinator is more than a passive communicator among agencies, but rather an aggressive synthesizer of ideas. The coordinator’s job is to make the whole more than the sum of its parts, thinking like a biologist to understand how each part interacts with the other to form a seamless, single system. My work since then, especially at EPA, has been to to apply systems thinking and work toward advancing a sustainable future. A second lesson I learned from Bob and my tenure at NCPO was that events drive action. It is hard to get anyone’s attention unless there is some urgency or timetable for action. This is also a critical issue today in trying to advance a more resilient and sustainable society.

I’m thankful for the opportunity that Bob White gave me decades ago,  and I’m not alone in appreciating his influence and dedication. The NAE event in June will bring together many leaders on climate change to pay tribute to Bob White. I look forward to joining them at the event. You can see the agenda at:

About the Author: Alan Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.


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