Wisconsin’s Knauss Fellow broadens horizons through policy and communications work on ocean issues

Joe Naughton is broadening his horizons even while working from his Washington, D.C., apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally from Brookfield, Wisconsin, Naughton is one of 68 fellows in the 2020 class of the John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship Program. The prestigious program places early-career professionals in one-year fellowships working in federal government offices. The program is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Sea Grant Office.

Joe Naughton at home in Washington with his work-at-home buddy, Suki, his roommate’s dog. (Submitted photo)

After being chosen through a competitive state and national process last July and then receiving his placement in the fall, Naughton began his post in early February 2020. Like many, he shifted from days spent in the office to telework in mid-March.

Naughton serves as the Interagency Ocean Policy Coordinator within NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR). His role is a mix of science and communication, and his primary responsibility is as Executive Secretary of the Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology (SOST).

Explained Naughton, “The SOST is a federal coordinating body that sits under the NSTC (National Science and Technology Council), so it’s under White House purview. It coordinates all federal work related to ocean science and technology. I do a lot of work across these different agencies, coordinating communication, working on various reports, and then I communicate all of this correspondence up to the co-chairs of this Subcommittee. The co-chairs are from NOAA, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and I serve as the SOST liaison to these agencies. But also, within the SOST, there are these technical working groups, which I really enjoy, since it’s a little more science-focused.”

With a background in water resources engineering from his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marquette University—where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, respectively—Naughton is finding that the fellowship is pushing him in some new directions. While he previously focused on hydrology and urban water issues, now he’s learning more about ocean concerns. “That’s a whole new world for me,” he said.

He’s also found unexpected benefits on the communication side: “One really great thing is I’ve worked a lot on my writing, which I didn’t foresee initially. I’ve been getting my hands on a lot of reports, and that’s a huge change.”

Like many professionals these days, Naughton spends a good chunk of his days interacting with his colleagues on a screen. “I have a lot of video calls, whether it’s hopping on these technical working groups or having quick tag-ups with NOAA, NSF or whatever other agency it may be. A lot of it is expressing concerns; these agencies have their missions, and they want that vocalized in whatever federal, coordinated ocean science work is being done.”

Naughton is also gaining exposure to some NOAA-specific efforts, such as the Ambassadors Initiative, in which someone like a fellow or an administrator goes to present in a school or other setting. Naughton helps assemble collections of materials for the ambassador’s visit.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on some of the travel, conference and professional development aspects of the Knauss Fellowship experience, Naughton is hopeful that some of those things will be possible towards the latter part of his one-year commitment.

In the meantime, he said, he’s found a supportive climate in his contacts with Wisconsin Sea Grant, the National Sea Grant Office and the other members of his Knauss class, who have been connecting virtually, whether to discuss each other’s research or simply have coffee.

Naughton is also enjoying the company of his roommate’s new puppy, a rescued Lab/beagle mix named Suki. While the pet adoption was in motion before the pandemic hit, it’s been a silver lining to be home with the new pup and help her get acclimated, or simply take a walk at lunchtime and get some fresh air.

Despite this highly unusual Knauss Fellowship year, Naughton and others in his cohort are making the most of it. Said Naughton, “The amount I’m able to touch in this fellowship is really great, and something I didn’t expect.” And despite the adjustments necessitated by the pandemic, said Naughton, “I’m definitely still fortunate to have this experience.”