Scientific Integrity? Simple and easy – until it isn’t.

This morning’s print edition of the Washington Post ran an op-ed authored by some former NOAA leaders who know their stuff – Jane Lubchenco, D. James Baker, and Kathryn D. Sullivan. The three joined forces to inveigh against political interference with weather forecasters. You can find the full on-line version here. They open this way:

Monday brought the welcome news that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration career leaders are pushing back against political interference with weather forecasts. Craig McLean, the acting chief scientist , is investigating the agency’s apparent attempts to defend President Trump’s inaccurate statements about the danger to Alabama from Hurricane Dorian. And another career civil servant, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, publicly defended the “integrity of the forecasting process.”

Weather forecasting should never be political. The National Weather Service, an agency within NOAA, issues forecasts and warnings that are based on science and focused squarely on public safety. For more than a century, the agency has played a vital role in protecting the lives and property of Americans across the country

They go on to describe the recent breach in this observance, occurring as Hurricane Dorian’s path took it over the Bahamas and sideswiped the U.S. coast, and in the days since. Their perspective merits a thorough read. And if interested, readers can find the broader context as well as fuller details of the political interference and pushback here[1] and discussion of just why and how such interference is problematic here.

A few observations:

1. The instant political interference with science begins, the distinction between “right” and “wrong” no longer remains simple. However tempting it is to assign a label of “good” or “bad” to every player, such tags need to be replaced with “shades of grey.” That’s because the basic operating premise of the civilian executive branch is similar to that of the military: legitimacy flows from a single central authority. It’s not like the legislative branch, where authority is distributed[2] across multiple, independent centers. This means that whenever an improper order comes from above, the only choice available to those in the leadership/management chain, whether they be political-appointees or career employees, is a choice among the illegitimacy of the particular act, or the illegitimacy of breaking the chain of authority: essentially lose-lose. A third option – resignation – creates additional negative repercussions throughout the agency that must be factored into any incumbent’s decision. Resignation can as easily be an act of cowardice as an act of courage. What’s more, civilian leaders have few standardized, thought-through guidelines on which to rely. Ethical attention given scientific integrity at an institutional level (as opposed to the personal level) is far less extensive than say, the thought and consideration given to war crimes – actions deemed illegitimate even in the chaos of armed combat, as articulated in the Geneva Convention and elsewhere.

Support for the bench-level forecasters (in this case the Birmingham Forecast Office) is an easy call. At the same time would-be critics might be more measured and deliberate before assigning blame to leadership, even at very high levels. To the extent leaders are struggling, it may well be because the challenge they face is monumental and complicated, not because they’re any less high-minded than the rest of us.  

2. The threat to the integrity of NOAA science is nothing new on the current US political landscape; rather, it’s simply NOAA’s turn. For over two years now, the United States has seen political pressure across government science agencies, most notably EPA, but extending to DoE and NSF (climate research); USDA (wholesale relocation of USDA scientists), and Department of Interior, to name just a few. Until this latest dustup, NOAA scientists had thought they’d seen less interference than at other agencies; now they’re simply “one of the crowd.”

3. Commander-in-Chief versus Scientist-in-Chief[3]? The real-world experience with the former is extensive, and includes considerable attention to civilians encumbering such a role. This is generally accepted practice across nations of the world. With the latter, there’s less to go on. One might think that natural because the stakes of warfare are higher. But consider the example of Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor to the presidency of the Union of South Africa. By inserting himself into the country’s policy response to the AIDS epidemic – and denying his people access to retroviral therapies – he made himself responsible for an estimated 350,000-400,000 excess deaths out of a population less than 20 million. This is a toll comparable to that of any nation’s war losses. Any attempt by a national leader to take control directly and unilaterally over even a single field of science unaided by expert advisers should be cause for concern. But for a leader to exert such individual control cavalierly across not just one but several branches of science, and for that to happen in the United States, a leader of the free world, and on globally-important challenges such as climate change, is reckless.

[1]Full disclosure: You’ll quickly find this link doesn’t take you to a single source, but rather sets you afloat on an ocean of links. Each in turn leads to yet other sites. The particulars of the various accounts can differ, sometimes significantly, and the emerging story line and identification of heroes and villains will vary from path to path. The world may move on, so that the story dies down, or it may stay alive and clarify as new information comes to light.  

[2] or is supposed to reside; these days there are some real questions about how well the legislative piece is working – whether the Congress itself is independent from the executive, and the extent to which members of Congress can realistically exercise independent agency in the face of party political pressures.

[3] Not to be confused with Chief Scientist, a common role in the C-suite of many tech companies and government agencies.

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