Top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association violated its ethical standards and scientific integrity policy when it issued a statement contradicting a local National Weather Service office during Hurricane Dorian in 2019, a scientific misconduct investigation determined.
During Dorian’s approach to the United States last year, President Donald Trump showed members of the media an image of the storm’s potential path, which included a marker drawing in an area of Alabama.
Responding to calls of concern, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham, Alabama, office tweeted out, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”
But on September 6, NOAA released a statement saying, “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. … 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.”
Now, a new memo laying out the final decision on three allegations of misconduct says that an independent panel investigating NOAA leadership’s actions during the storm’s approach violated the agency’s ethical and scientific standards.
Specifically, the panel determined that acting Administrator of NOAA Neil Jacobs and NOAA Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications Julie Roberts violated NOAA’s Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management and the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy in writing and releasing the September 6 statement.
By excluding the Birmingham office from the development of the statement, Jacobs and Roberts “engaged in the misconduct intentionally, knowingly, or in reckless disregard of the Code of Scientific Conduct or Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management in NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy,” the panel wrote.
In addition, the panel addresses the allegation that “the drafting of the September 6 Statement was driven by external political pressure from Department of Commerce … senior leaders and inappropriately criticized the September 1 Birmingham Tweet and underlying scientific activity.”
The panel found that Jacobs and 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. However, when the edit was not incorporated, they chose to release the statement as a NOAA document,” the panel said.
Both Jacobs and Roberts argued that they did not violate NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.
In hisafour-page response, Jacobs argued that the National Academy of Public Administration, the panel presiding over the investigation, never questioned or refuted “the scientific veracity of the actual statement” from September 6. He also wrote that the panel took “an overbroad approach” to the application of the policy, arguing that the statement does not fall under the scientific activity to which the policy is intended to apply.
“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,” Jacob said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.