September 8, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

We’ve become accustomed to having a president who lies blatantly, but leadership at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reached a new low in enabling such duplicity—and has done so in a way that endangers health and safety.

The saga began with a tweet: On September 1, President Trump stated incorrectly that Alabama “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian; this was greeted by joking questions about whether he knew how to read a map, because on that day the state was no longer part of the area where Dorian was forecast to hit. National Weather Service employees apparently recognized that this was no laughing matter, though, and NWS Birmingham tweeted “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”

The public relies on NWS forecasts to help them plan and respond appropriately, including by evacuating when hurricanes threaten. As Kendra Pierre-Louis notes, encouraging people to prepare when they don’t need to increases the risk that they’ll ignore or downplay the next warning—and remain in harm’s way when a hurricane is approaching. And James Franklin, who led NOAA’s Hurricane Specialist Unit before he retired, explains, “Birmingham’s statement Sunday morning that Alabama would see no impacts from Dorian was spot-on and an appropriate response to the President’s misleading tweet that morning. … It’s the job of forecasters to interpret the numerical guidance available to them, not echo it back verbatim.”

Rather than acknowledging his error and joining NWS in allaying Alabamians’ worries, Trump made things worse. He sent more tweets, and on September 4 he displayed an outdated map (from August 29) showing the “cone of uncertainty” marking the hurricane’s possible path, with an apparently hand-drawn addition extending the cone to encompass a portion of Alabama. On September 6, NOAA (NWS’s parent agency) released a statement “attributable to a NOAA spokesperson” they declined to identify. It read:

From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, the information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama. This is clearly demonstrated in Hurricane Advisories #15 through #41, which can be viewed at the following link. The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.

While it might be the case that NWS employees are asked to speak in probabilistic rather than certain terms, it’s hard to see this statement as anything other than NOAA leadership disrespecting its own employees in order to salve President Trump’s wounded ego. Current and former NOAA employees and appointees tweeted out their alarm at this development, noting the crucial role of public trust and how this action violates it.

At the Washington Post, Andrew Freedman, Colby Itkowitz, and Jason Samenow report, “Acting NOAA administrator Neil Jacobs was involved in drawing up the statement as was the NOAA director of public affairs, Julie Kay Roberts, who has experience in emergency management and worked on the president’s campaign.”

Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists gives some important context in explaining why this latest development is so alarming:

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 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.

Those of us who recognize the difference between Trump administration appointees and career staff will likely continue relying on NWS forecasts, but those with less time and energy for following agency intricacies might consider this another indication that they can’t trust the federal government. And the next time a hurricane is heading toward their community, some of these people who’ve decided they can’t trust the government might ignore guidance about evacuating.

Since Trump took office, we’ve seen many agencies sideline science in ways that endanger public health and threaten agencies’ reputations. It’s both sad and dangerous to see NOAA added to that list.

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