Late Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a batch of emails between high-level agency officials around Sharpiegate; BuzzFeed broke the news. Most of the emails are further verification of what was previously understood about how things played out at the agency when its leaders betrayed their own scientists after the President doubled down on his inaccurate Dorian forecast and doctored a weather map. But an important take-away for me is a new window into just how unfit Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs is to lead the agency.
Jacobs was at the helm when Sharpiegate went down in September. He has been the Acting Administrator of NOAA since March and is nominated to lead the agency with an expected Senate confirmation hearing this year. Post Sharpiegate, he made supportive comments to NOAA scientists on the matter and is allegedly doing a listening tour at NOAA offices. Now, these emails—in addition to longstanding concerns—should give us pause about whether Jacobs could be an effective leader of the agency.
New insights from FOIA
In one of the newly released emails, Jacobs writes, “You have no idea how hard I’m fighting to keep politics out of science.” This raise my eyebrows. Really? If Jacobs was fighting his hardest and that shameful statement still went out on his watch, I have little faith that he can make the necessary hard decisions the job requires every day to protect the science and scientists at NOAA.
If that’s what fighting his hardest looks like, he is either profoundly ignorant of what is happening at the upper levels of his own agency, or he’s allowing himself to be pushed around by political appointees working underneath him. This speaks volumes about the kind of leader Jacobs is and would be as a NOAA head. This wasn’t a complicated situation. It was very clear what the right thing to do was and Jacobs failed the test, even when he was the person in charge.
Jacobs’ behavior in the whole fiasco is especially offensive in the context of other newly released emails where we see other NOAA employees—ones in far less of a position of power than Jacobs—stand up and defend the actions of agency scientists. Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean sticks his neck out and defends NOAA scientists, both internally in the release emails and externally when he launched a scientific integrity investigation into the matter. Also in the emails, we see the head of the National Weather Service Louis Uccellini take a stand and the previous NOAA Administrator Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet openly considers resigning. We see no evidence of similarly principled statements from Jacobs, neither in the emails or his public statements since. Instead, in the emails, Jacobs puts a big “well actually” on the situation, suggesting that the Birmingham office was wrong to try to clarify things for the public because of a then days-old wind forecast that had a small percent risk over Alabama. He chose to raise this trivial point rather than standing firmly in defense of the Birmingham meteorologists who were rightfully trying to provide accurate and timely weather information to the public. The posthumous analysis on Sharpiegate is especially telling about the kind of leader Jacobs will be in the future or perhaps has been this past year behind the scenes.
A pattern of science being sidelined
Sharpiegate has garnered more media attention than other times Trump administration officials have failed to respect the role of science in the federal government, but this was not an isolated incident. More than a 120 times, science has been sidelined, misused, or ignored in cases it should have been followed. Up until recently, NOAA had been largely spared from these instances, a testament to its leadership and infrastructure that supports a culture of scientific integrity. That’s what made the events around Sharpiegate so disappointing. We watched NOAA leaders allow their science-based agency to be politicized.
An inexcusably passive role
This isn’t what the hardworking and committed staff of NOAA deserve in a leader, especially under the Trump administration, where strong leadership in defense of science is needed more than ever. From fisheries management to the severe weather forecasting to climate communication, NOAA scientists are putting themselves and their expertise on the line every day in every corner of the country. They need a leader who will stand behind them. If Jacobs isn’t willing to do that, even when the choice is obvious, how can we trust that he’ll make those same decisions in the interest of NOAA scientists any other day? Jacobs’ inexcusably passive role in Sharpiegate should be disqualifying. NOAA needs a leader that will back them up. It’s now crystal clear that Jacobs isn’t up to the task.