Jacobs sailed through Senate confirmation to serve as the assistant secretary of commerce or, in his current official capacity, acting head of NOAA. However, to be confirmed as permanent NOAA administrator, he will require a new confirmation vote.
Although previously considered noncontroversial, Jacobs was embroiled in the scandal that broke out during Hurricane Dorian, in which NOAA released an unsigned statement rebuking Weather Service forecasters for seeming to contradict Trump’s incorrect tweet that Alabama was at great risk from the hurricane. The forecasters had subsequently tweeted that Alabama was not at risk, appearing to contradict the president, although they were unaware of his tweet at the time. Instead, they responded to concerned residents who were calling the office to find out more about the forecast.
The controversy took on the name Sharpiegate after Trump displayed a hurricane forecast map to the news media that had been altered with a black Sharpie marker to show the potential for the storm to track across Alabama.
Jacobs was involved in drafting that unsigned statement but had resisted including language admonishing the forecasters. Officials at the Commerce Department insisted on including the language. They were acting on behalf of Trump who, through acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, had directed the department to deal with the issue.
As the imbroglio regarding Hurricane Dorian and Alabama raged, Jacobs attempted to walk the fine line between supporting Weather Service forecasters, whose morale was damaged by the unsigned statement, and not crossing the president.
At a meeting of the National Weather Association just days after the statement was released, Jacobs stated: “The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian. What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather office, which was to calm fears and support public safety.”
The Hurricane Dorian controversy has prompted investigations from the Commerce Department inspector general, the acting chief scientist of NOAA and the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. All of them are ongoing.
One of Jacobs’s key priorities is how to improve the accuracy of weather forecasting modeling within NOAA. At the moment, the National Weather Service’s flagship computer model ranks either third or fourth place in accuracy, behind models operated in Europe and sometimes Canada.
He is the champion and primary architect behind a fledgling initiative known as the Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC), which would establish a “community modeling” effort, drawing in resources from the academic and private sectors to build a world-class computer model while leveraging cloud computing.
This work earned praise from Antonio Busalacchi, the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who also endorsed Jacobs’ nomination.
“Neil is a terrific choice. It is imperative for the United States to close the forecasting gap with our overseas competitors, and Neil has the necessary expertise to coordinate the efforts of NOAA with private weather companies and university researchers as we all focus on restoring the nation to weather forecasting preeminence,” he said in a statement, calling EPIC “sorely needed.”
In addition to computer modeling, Jacobs also has been working to protect the scientific use of a portion of the radio spectrum the agency uses for sensing water vapor via satellites. Telecommunications companies plan to use similar frequency bands for developing 5G networks, and a behind-the-scenes fight has played out between NOAA, NASA, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House.
According to D. James Baker, who served as the NOAA administrator for President Bill Clinton, Jacobs has the potential to be a “good leader for the agency.”
“In my view, Neil Jacobs is a technically competent meteorologist who has been a strong proponent of protecting the spectrum NWS needs for forecasts. He had a misstep over the false Hurricane Dorian forecast when he didn’t protect his forecast office from political interference. If he can learn from that mistake, he could be a good leader for the agency. NOAA needs to have an Administrator in these turbulent times. I would support him,” Baker said via email.
J. Marshall Shepherd, former president of the American Meteorological Society, also endorsed Jacobs’s nomination. “Neil has effectively been serving in this role for months and has a good feel for the issues NOAA and the broader enterprise face. I think he is the right person for the job under current circumstances and believe that he will do a great job,” Shepherd said in a statement.
Before joining NOAA, Jacobs was chief scientist at Panasonic Avionics, where he led the development of its computer modeling framework. He holds a PhD in meteorology from North Carolina State University.
The initial selection of the businessman Myers to lead the agency was mired in controversy. The nomination broke from a long-standing tradition of choosing a scientist to run the agency. In addition, concerns were raised about Myers’s potential conflicts of interest in leading the agency, as he had served as chief executive and held an ownership stake in AccuWeather, which relies on information from the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA.
Although Myers’s nomination had twice been voted through the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he was never brought up for a floor vote. He withdrew because of health considerations.
Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the last name of J. Marshall Shepherd, former president of the American Meteorological Society.