The National Weather Service (NWS) has always been a model of scientific integrity, ensuring that weather science is not politically driven, regardless of the administration. But the recent misleading statements by President Donald Trump about a NWS hurricane forecast and cover-up actions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), its parent agency, have violated those norms.
The mission of the NWS is to provide weather, water, and climate data; forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property; and enhancement of the national economy. Its reach is national—to every community in the United States. The goal is to achieve a weather-ready nation that is prepared for and responds to weather, water, and climate-dependent events. Perhaps most important, the NWS also recognizes that its success is measured not solely by the accuracy of forecasts but, critically, by the societal response to those forecasts.
Last week’s events related to the forecast path of Hurricane Dorian show the importance of societal impact. First, embarrassingly inaccurate and out-of-date statements, plus a chart with false information issued by President Trump, overrode the sound science of the forecast and sowed public confusion about the storm’s hazards. Then political appointees at NOAA, apparently under threat of firing by the secretary of commerce, criticized the Birmingham NWS office for accurately reassuring Alabama citizens that they were not in danger.
To make their case, the political appointees twisted the facts to justify inaccurate statements made by the president. This is truly dangerous territory. It is beyond sad to see political appointees undermining the superb, life-saving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated career servants and putting American communities at risk. The NWS did an excellent job in forecasting the track and strength of Hurricane Dorian and should be recognized for that.
Scientific integrity at a science agency like NOAA is at the core of its credibility. That is why NOAA has a comprehensive a Scientific Integrity Policy, designed to “strengthen widespread confidence—from scientists, to decision-makers, to the general public—in the quality, validity, and reliability of NOAA science.” The policy reflects the agency’s commitment to ensuring that NOAA’s science meets the highest standards of rigor and transparency. It includes principles aimed at preventing politics from interfering with the discovery, use, and communication of scientific information, and it has protocols to deal with violations of these standards. The actions by NOAA political appointees last week violated those standards and directly undermined the agency’s credibility.
NOAA’s political leaders’ criticism of the NWS Forecast Office in Birmingham, Ala., was a direct violation of core principles of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy. The threatened firings by the secretary of commerce and subsequent actions by political leaders directly undermined the need for NOAA scientists to be open and transparent about their work. These actions mean that they are not free to speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work.
Beyond violating policy, some of last week’s actions may well be criminal. Counterfeiting government weather forecasts has been a federal crime since 1894 [Pietruska, 2018]. That law was established to ensure that the best available forecasts were freely available. This policy has protected the public from harm. It’s a recognition that any manipulation of the official NWS forecast, whether it is for hurricanes or floods or any other weather event, misleads the public and could have disastrous effects. The private sector weather industry also depends on that policy and must be able to count on NOAA’s scientific integrity and apolitical posture. Last week’s foolish political actions weaken the foundation of this vibrant and growing economic enterprise.
To restore public trust in weather forecasts and warnings, every step should be taken to learn from this distortion of truth and breach of trust. We have called on Congress, NOAA, NWS, and the Department of Commerce leadership and the department’s inspector general to restore the public’s confidence in NWS weather forecasts and warnings by scrutinizing this breach of public trust. This includes implementing steps to prevent it from happening again and enforcing and reaffirming NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.