NOAA’s Jacobs Cited for Scientific Misconduct in Sharpiegate

NOAA’s Jacobs Cited for Scientific Misconduct in Sharpiegate

Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, was cited in a report released today as having engaged in scientific misconduct in Sharpiegate, where someone used a Sharpie pen to include Alabama in a threatened area from Hurricane Dorian last year.  Jacobs’s nomination to get the NOAA job permanently is pending in the Senate.

Neil Jacobs, Acting NOAA Administrator, at his confirmation hearing to become NOAA Administrator, March 11, 2020.

Jacobs is Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction.  Since February 2019 he has been the acting head of NOAA.

NOAA has not had a permanent head since the Trump Administration began.

In August-September 2019, with Jacobs at the helm, NOAA became embroiled in controversy when President Trump tweeted that Alabama was one of the states that “likely would be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian even though the forecast did not show that.  The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama  — the Birmingham Weather Forecast Office (WFO) — issued a statement clarifying that Alabama would see no impact from the storm.

NWS is part of NOAA.

“Sharpiegate” ensued where Trump displayed a map to reporters where someone apparently used a Sharpie pen to include Alabama in the warning area.  NOAA issued an unsigned letter on September 6 criticizing the NWS for contradicting the President.

Complaints were filed with NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Officer (SIO) about the roles played by Jacobs and Julie Roberts, Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications for NOAA, in penning the letter. The SIO determined an independent investigation was warranted and chose the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).

Today, NOAA released NAPA’s report, dated March 2020, and the decision memorandum of Steve Volz, the designated Scientific Integrity Determining Official, dated today.  Volz is NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services (NEDSIS), the part of NOAA in charge of satellites.

Volz agreed with NAPA’s findings.

NAPA found Jacobs and Roberts violated NOAA’s Code of Ethics for Science Supervision and Management in two of the three complaints. Specifically NAPA found that they “engaged in 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.”

Those two complaints were that Jacobs and Roberts did not consult with the Birmingham WFO in writing the September 6 letter that referenced the WFO’s underlying scientific activity, and that the drafting of that letter was inappropriately driven by external political forces.

On the third complaint, NAPA disagreed that media guidance issued during that period limited the ability of scientists to communicate with the public and the media about research findings.

Jacobs and Roberts each issued reclamas or “exceptions” to the NAPA report explaining their actions.

Volz offered a series of recommendations largely drawn from the NAPA report.  None suggested disciplinary actions.  They focused on clarifying NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, creating one for the Department of Commerce (DOC), of which NOAA is part, and ensuring that NOAA and Department of Commerce officials are trained on them.

What effect this will have on Jacobs’s nomination to be NOAA Administrator is difficult to calculate. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the nomination on May 20, but the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), said she was reserving judgment on a final vote until the investigation was complete.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, issued a statement on June 17 commending NOAA for requesting the NAPA review, but also wants an inquiry into the actions of others in DOC and the Executive Office of the President (EOP).

“While the findings of this NAPA report are serious and the misconduct of the NOAA officials should not be overlooked, it must be noted that the scope of this review was limited to the implementation of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy and does not extend to Department of Commerce and Executive Office of the President (EOP) officials. As this report and the Science Committee’s ongoing investigation have found, officials from DOC and EOP were involved in instructing NOAA leadership to issue the statement on September 6. They too must be held accountable for the role they played in the scientific integrity violations found by NAPA. It is imperative that we have the full story so we can ensure that all National Weather Service forecasts, including hurricane forecasts, are issued in a timely and accurate way.”

She also called for passage of Rep. Paul Tonko’s Scientific Integrity Act, H.R. 1709, which would amend the America COMPETES Act to establish scientific integrity policies for federal agencies. The bill was approved by the committee in October 2019.

Note: this article has been updated.

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