Hurricane Season is Upon Us and Old Sharpies Never Die

June 15, 2020 | 5:45 pm
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

Last September, as Hurricane Dorian approached the US, the forecasters did their job, but the president decided he knew better. Altering a forecast chart with a Sharpie pen and holding it up in the Oval Office was just the beginning of the farce that became known as SharpieGate.  Then, NWS scientists were ordered not to contradict the misinformation the president broadcast, and were attacked by senior officials for making correct statements about the hurricane’s path. That’s a direct violation of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity policy, as an agency investigation confirmed today.

I joined former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and former NOAA Chief Scientist Richard Spinrad to file a complaint under the NOAA Scientific Integrity policy last September. Three other groups and individuals inside and outside government also complained and requested a formal investigation. Now, ten months later, the report of that investigation has been released along with NOAA’s determination of what action to take.

As complainants, we were asked to respond to a NAPA (National Academy of Public Administration) report before NOAA made its final determination. Here is an excerpt from our response:

 The NAPA investigation was professionally and thoughtfully done and provides useful information and recommendations. Unfortunately, however, the investigation was severely limited by a lack of access to relevant documents and key personnel involved in the incident…”

“We concur with the second and third NAPA findings that several losses of scientific integrity occurred…This led to public confusion, caused reputational damage to NOAA and Commerce, and directly constrained the ability of scientists to communicate accurate scientific findings to the public.”

“We support the NAPA panel recommendations while believing that additional remedies are necessary to directly address the issues raised during the investigation. The recommendations we support include developing more comprehensive formal policy guidance; training for political appointees; and an intra-agency and inter-agency framework for implementing the policy including NOAA, Commerce, other agencies, and the White House.”

“We take exception to the report’s silence on corrective action for those who caused the losses of scientific integrity and damage caused to NOAA’s reputation for timely, scientifically accurate information. For the policy to be effective, there must be real consequences for its violation. The purpose of the investigation should not be only to prevent these kinds of actions in the future, but also to address the problem that already occurred. To that end, we suggest NOAA publicly acknowledge and repudiate the misconduct found; publicly reaffirm the right of forecasters to communicate directly with the public; and take appropriate disciplinary action for the misconduct.”

The investigation was limited

NOAA contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration to investigate and they put together a high level panel to do so. But the investigators were barred from talking to anyone outside of NOAA despite clear testimony that the orders came from the Department of Commerce and higher – from the White House itself, to suppress the science and the scientists.

The panel also was refused access to internal NOAA records, including text messages to and from Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs. Nevertheless, the Academy panel found that there were clear violations of the policy and scientific misconduct on the part of the acting administrator of NOAA and a senior political appointee. The panel recommended additional training, more development of joint policies with the Department of Commerce, and better communication.

No consequences for the guilty

The “Deciding Official” in NOAA, who received the report for action concurred. But neither the panel nor the Deciding Official decided to take any real corrective action.

In other words, there are to be no consequences for those guilty of misconduct. None. They did recommend that the Department of Commerce Inspector General should develop future protocols for investigating senior staff.  This in the context of the repeated firing by the President of Inspectors General for…investigating senior staff.

Hurricane season officially began June first though there were already two named storms before that date this year. As always, warning, preparation, and response will be needed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) is absolutely critical to giving the public and federal, state, and local authorities as much warning as possible that a storm is approaching. This year again, they will be the authoritative source on the what, where, when, and who will be in the path of catastrophic storms.

We need to hear from our experts, especially in times of emergency – hurricanes, other severe weather, pandemics like COVID-19, and many other situations. It is easy enough to agree that more training and communication as well as interdepartmental coordination is a good thing.  I think we all knew that ten months ago. But if there are no consequences for corrupting the ability of the experts to speak out then there is little reason to think it won’t happen again.

The Sharpie hasn’t been thrown away, it just went back in the box for next time. Color me disappointed.