NOAA Leadership Trades Scientific Integrity for Political Appeasement

September 7, 2019 | 8:37 am
Photo: The White House
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

The mission of the National Weather Service is to provide “weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.” And its hard-working employees work around the clock in offices around the country to ensure the weather is forecasted, and lives are saved. Yet, today is a dark day: These dedicated public servants were thrown under the bus by their own leaders simply for implementing this very mission.

Yesterday leadership at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a memo disavowing the social media communication of the National Weather Service Birmingham office regarding the impacts of Hurricane Dorian. This might just seem like another round of the president’s ongoing Twitter antics but this move is significantly more consequential and more damaging to the health of the nation.

Dissing the National Weather Service’s life-saving efforts

The National Weather Service is responsible for saving countless lives. Its weather watches and warnings, along with ongoing communication with the public, keeps people out of harm’s way. People are able to avoid or prepare for tornadoes, hurricanes, heatwaves, and flood waters thanks to the dedicated experts in the National Weather Service who track severe weather into the night, sometimes even sleeping at the office to ensure they don’t miss a forecast.

This crucial work is often only visible in more extreme cases, like the viral weather balloon launching from the Key West NWS office during Hurricane Irma in 2018. But National Weather Service employees are keeping people safe across the country every hour of every day. They are in constant communication with the public through social media, TV, radio, and even answering phone calls directly from members of the public. The Birmingham Alabama office was simply fulfilling this crucial mission last week when it tweeted out that (contrary to the President’s assertion) Alabama would not be in the path of Hurricane Dorian. Yet the administration—and now NOAA leadership itself—is acting as if this was a criminal act.

Adding insult to injury, this is the same Birmingham, Alabama office that earned national awards from the Department of Commerce for working tirelessly to protect lives during the historic 2011 tornado outbreak that included 358 tornadoes over a three-day period. Now those same leaders have turned their back on the hardworking employees at the Birmingham office and across NOAA.

Eroding public trust with dangerous consequences

This move is an escalation of the president’s attacks on government science. It is no secret that President Trump hasn’t respected the science and scientists at federal agencies. In fact, our work has tracked more than a hundred examples of misuses of science under President Trump and our survey of scientists at 16 federal agencies found that many were being censored, ignored, and left out of crucial conversations. But this move takes the problem to new heights. The work of the National Weather Service has been historically apolitical. Weather forecasting, after all, is crucial to the whole country, all people, and all commercial activities. But here we see NOAA leadership trade scientific integrity for political appeasement.

This move represents a huge step backwards. It takes a lot for the National Weather Service to build up trust from the public and this work is crucial for saving lives and property. When people don’t believe the messenger, they won’t leave even when a threat is eminent. The National Weather Service has worked hard to build its reputation locally and nationally. The administration and NOAA leadership tore that down yesterday in one shameful memo.

Backsliding on scientific integrity

This is disappointing given how far NOAA has come on scientific integrity. Under the George W Bush Administration, reports of interference in scientific work were flowing out of NOAA. In response, under the leadership of Dr Jane Lubchenco and up until now, NOAA has built back up its scientific integrity. It was one of the first agencies to develop a Scientific Integrity Policy. The strong policy gives NOAA scientists freedom to speak in ways other agencies couldn’t fathom. For example, scientists at NOAA can pick up the phone if a reporter calls. They don’t need permission and don’t need political staff to sit in on the meeting. Importantly, the agency proved that federal scientists could be trusted to communicate openly with the public. For years, this policy has been the gold standard and it shows. On our 2018 survey of NOAA scientists, the majority of respondents reported high moral, job satisfaction, and perceptions that the Scientific Integrity Policy was being followed.

Even under the Trump Administration, NOAA has largely been spared from the political interference in science we’ve seen in other parts of the government. While political appointees have been wreaking havoc at the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA has largely continued its work uninhibited. This is, of course, how it is supposed to work. Federal agencies like NOAA should follow their public-serving and science-based missions, not blindly echo its political leaders. That’s what makes this move so disappointing. It seems NOAA leadership is no longer willing to defend the critical scientific work of their own staff.

One would think they might have learned their lesson. Last year, political appointees at the agency got called out for proposing to cut climate out of NOAA’s mission. After a round of media and Congressional inquiries to the agency, they stepped back from this move. But now we are seeing NOAA leaders again attempt to tamper with the agency’s scientific work.

A culture of fear

One sad outcome of leadership abandoning its scientists is the culture of fear it creates. If scientists can’t trust that their leaders will back them up when needed, they aren’t going to feel comfortable speaking up when they need to.

This is not the first time the Trump Administration has intimidated federal agencies for science-based social media posts. In 2017, the Trump Administration flew the Joshua Tree National Park social media manager all the way to DC so he could be publicly chastised for tweeting about climate change, a topic very relevant and important for an ecosystem like that of Joshua Tree National Park. We know from federal scientist surveys that scientist can do their job better when their leaders support scientific integrity. NOAA leaders just proved they aren’t up to that task.

In the end, the public will suffer if our government doesn’t allow its scientists to accurately communicate the truth. We need leaders who will support the crucial scientific work of federal agencies and have the moral courage to resist attempts to politicize scientific communication. NOAA leadership just abdicated this responsibility. Until we can get better leadership, the rest of us are left to weather the storm.