Events at NOAA Highlight Strengths and Shortcomings of Agency Scientific Integrity Policies

President Trump’s recent tweets about Hurricane Dorian have resulted in another type of storm that highlights the need for stronger protections for scientific integrity—especially at federal agencies.

The political storm began on September 1 when Trump incorrectly included Alabama in a tweet listing states that could potentially be hit by the hurricane. The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama soon tweeted a correction, stating that Dorian was not a threat to Alabama. When Trump doubled down and claimed he was right to warn of potential hurricane damage to Alabama—and displayed the now-infamous altered weather map—NWS’s parent agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), initially attempted to avoid becoming involved. Then, on September 6, NOAA issued an unsigned statement supporting Trump’s erroneous claim.

The media has since reported that NOAA leadership instructed staff on both September 1 and 4 to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts” and not “provide any opinion” in response to the President’s tweets. There are also reports that Wilbur L. Ross Jr, the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees NOAA, threatened to fire NOAA employees over the attempts to correct Trump, resulting in the September 6 unsigned statement. The Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General is now investigating the situation.

In the midst of this maelstrom, Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, sent an email to NOAA staff calling the agency’s actions “political” and “not based on science.” He wrote, “I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini also spoke in defense of NWS forecasters and their efforts to correct misinformation, commending them for upholding “the integrity of the forecasting process.”

We’re glad to see these leaders speaking out on behalf of scientific integrity. This troubling incident highlights the strengths and weaknesses of federal scientific integrity policies, which are designed to preserve scientific objectivity and protect science from being misrepresented. NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy (Administrative Order 202-735D) is generally seen as one of the better federal scientific integrity policies, and NOAA’s policy makes it clear that censorship and interference are considered violations of scientific integrity. Here’s why.

The policy promises that NOAA will “ensure the free flow of scientific information” and that “NOAA will preserve the integrity of the scientific activities it conducts, and activities that are conducted on its behalf” (5.02 and 5.02(a)). NOAA’s policy establishes that, “in no circumstance may any NOAA official ask or direct Federal scientists or other NOAA employees to suppress or alter scientific findings” (5.02(d)), and commits NOAA to “communicate scientific and technological findings… [including] accurate context of uncertainties” (5.02(g)). The policy also states that “NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work” (4.05).

In light of these assurances, we believe NOAA violated its own scientific integrity policy, both with the September 1 and September 4 attempts to keep scientists from speaking freely to the press about whether Alabama was in danger, and the September 6 NOAA statement suggesting that Trump’s tweets were accurate representations of the forecasts.

While the Trump incident is particularly disturbing, it reflects a larger trend towards government censorship, bias, and misrepresentation of science. We’re documenting these actions in a public database, the Silencing Science Tracker, our project with the Columbia University Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. The Tracker now contains 245 entries related to the federal government attempting to silence science—a tally that’s increasing at an alarming rate.

This series of events also emphasizes the need for stronger protections for scientific integrity. Despite its strengths, the NOAA scientific integrity policy has shortcomings. For example, the policy doesn’t give scientists the right to review news releases regarding their work—some other agency policies, like EPA’s, explicitly grant this. It’s also been reported that NOAA will dismiss a scientific integrity complaint if a complainant discloses the existence of the complaint. And NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, like other federal scientific integrity policies, does not grant a right of appeal, and does not always fully protect scientists from potential retaliation from filing a complaint.

This is why we’ve joined other public interest groups in support of the Scientific Integrity Act, which would greatly improve the legal landscape for federal scientists. In the meantime, we continue to publish educational resources and lead workshops for federal government employees, public university researchers, and scientists at private institutions to improve their legal literacy and help them understand how to respond when something seems amiss.

We also encourage researchers from any discipline to contact us to arrange a free, confidential consultation if they have legal questions or issues related to their work.

— Lauren Kurtz is the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund

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