The scandal over the forecast for Hurricane Dorian has come to be known as “Sharpiegate,” after President Trump displayed a modified NOAA forecast map during an Oval Office briefing to depict the storm threatening Alabama.
The report, whose findings were accepted by NOAA’s leadership and released Monday, found that Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator, and former NOAA deputy chief of staff and communications director Julie Kay Roberts twice violated codes of the agency’s scientific integrity policy amid their involvement in the Sept. 6 statement.
“It will be clear to anyone reviewing the accounts captured in this highly credible, independent Scientific Integrity report that the political leaders who interfered in our emergency response system need to publicly apologize or resign,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). Tonko had made an integrity complaint and is the sponsor of a bill that would increase accountability for such violations across federal science agencies.
NOAA’s scientific integrity policy prohibits political interference with the conduct and communication of the agency’s scientific findings.
The investigation, requested by two NOAA employees, a former NOAA administrator and Tonko, among others, was conducted on NOAA’s behalf by a panel assembled by the National Academy of Public Administration. NAPA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution dedicated to facilitating good governance, conducts assessments for government agencies.
The requests were made in the wake of NOAA’s issuance of a Sept. 6, 2019, statement that criticized the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham for a tweet that contradicted Trump’s inaccurate assertion from Sept. 1, in which the president claimed that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” from the Category 5 storm.
That statement embroiled NOAA in a storm of controversy over whether there was political interference with the scientific agency responsible for issuing lifesaving severe weather warnings. The statement was widely interpreted within NOAA’s National Weather Service as contradicting an accurate forecast because of political pressure from the White House and the Commerce Department.
The investigation recommends no punishments for either Jacobs or Roberts, the latter of whom has since moved on to a different position within the Commerce Department.
Instead, the report recommends that various guidelines and training materials be updated and that changes be made to the integrity policy procedures to ensure this does not happen again. It specifically calls for the Commerce Department’s inspector general’s office or other agencies to investigate alleged violations of scientific integrity when they involve senior NOAA and Commerce political leadership. It also advocates mandatory scientific integrity training.
Trump has nominated Jacobs to the Senate-confirmed position to lead the government’s primary oceans and atmospheric science agency, and his nomination has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee. However, these findings and the pending results of a Commerce Department inspector general’s report may cloud his prospects on the Senate floor.
Investigation finds two violations
After the unsigned Sept. 6 statement was released, NOAA’s scientific integrity officer, Cynthia Decker, received four complaints of misconduct. Decker, along with others, determined “it was in the best interest of NOAA” for an independent review of the matter. Decker then enlisted NAPA.
During its review, which lasted from December to March, the NAPA panel found Jacobs and Roberts violated NOAA’s scientific integrity policy in two instances, doing so “intentionally, knowingly, or in reckless disregard” of the agency’s code of scientific conduct.
First, it found that Jacobs and Roberts violated NOAA’s code for science supervision and management for not giving the NWS Birmingham office an opportunity to engage in the drafting of the unsigned NOAA statement in which they were reprimanded. Second, it concluded that Jacobs and Roberts violated the same code for their role in developing and releasing the statement, which “compromised NOAA’s integrity and reputation as an independent scientific agency.”
Jacob’s four-page response to NAPA’s report disputes he violated any policy, arguing that NAPA ignored the actual substance of the statement. “NAPA never questions or refutes the scientific veracity of the actual statement,” he writes, claiming it was “accurate.”
Moreover, he asserts that the statement is not the kind of scientific activity for which the integrity policy was intended to be applied and that the application, in this case, was “overbroad.” Jacobs writes, “Using NAPA’s interpretation, all social media posts, including tweets, that referenced any NOAA employee’s work would have to be reviewed by the scientist who completed the initial or previous work.”
Roberts argues she was not in violation of the NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, as the drafting of the statement was directed by officials at the Commerce Department. She says NOAA officials, including herself, raised concerns over the language in the statement. She contends that “additional reviews by NOAA officials would have done little to change the outcome.”
Importantly, the NAPA panel was not permitted to interview the Commerce Department officials who demanded the statement be released. As The Washington Post has reported, the White House sought for NOAA to correct the record on the Hurricane Dorian forecast, and orders to NOAA were handed down through top aides to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, because NOAA is part of the department.
In a memo accompanying the final report, Stephen M. Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and information services and designated scientific integrity determining official, notes that Jacobs and Roberts were under pressure from others involved in the drafting process. Those other officials were not necessarily bound by NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, Volz notes.
“Dr. Jacobs and Julie Roberts did not believe it was a good idea to release a statement, but felt significant external pressure to do so. They recommended, at two different points, that the reference to the Birmingham WFO be removed — an edit that, if accepted, may have avoided the policy violation,” Volz wrote, using the acronym for a National Weather Service forecast office.
“However, when the edit was not incorporated, they chose to release the statement as a NOAA document.”
Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA official who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy and who was one of the complainants to NOAA, said: “There are absolutely no consequences for those who actually engaged in misconduct.” He called it “very disappointing.”
“It’s hurricane season again,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “Why would we think this won’t happen again?”
Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, who immediately called for a scientific misconduct investigation after the Sept. 6 statement, wrote that he concurred with the NAPA findings but lamented that no one would be held accountable for them within NOAA.
“The Panel concludes that Jacobs and Roberts felt that the situation they were in was out of their hands and their actions were driven by the direction of unnamed and uninterviewed Commerce officials who may well have been the subjects of the redactions,” McLean writes. “While there may be found causes of sympathy for the oppressed and meek subordinates of domineering autocratic ogres, I hardly can find sympathy in this scintilla of an argument for clemency. If not the single highest person in NOAA, who will stand for the Scientific Integrity of the agency and the trust our public needs to invest in our scientific process and products?”
“NOAA welcomes the report and its recommendations, which would strengthen the policy of consulting NOAA scientists in developing communications materials involving their expertise,” said Scott Smullen, NOAA’s acting director of communications. “Scientific integrity is at the core of NOAA’s work and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust in the agency’s ability to provide accurate, thorough and timely science.”
The NOAA investigation is the first of three expected in the aftermath of Sharpiegate. The Commerce Department’s inspector general and the House Science Committee are also expected to release reports.