20 December 2012

Why is NOAA Acting Like it has Something to Hide?

UPDATE 12/21: Following an inquiry to the NWS and NOAA, Christopher Vaccarro of NOAA External Relations confirms to me by email that NOAA has not asked its Sandy Assessment Team members to sign a  nondisclosure agreement as alleged by Rep. Paul Broun in his letter sent earlier this week where he wrote: "the new charter requires that participants sign non-disclosure agreements." NOAA has some questions to answer, to be sure, but to remain a credible overseer the House Science Committee needs to have its own facts straight. I've struck out the resulting incorrect text below. 

NOAA -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and parent agency to the cooperative institute where I am a Fellow here at the University of Colorado -- is acting like an agency with something to hide.

Last week I described the problematic nature of the so-called 'hurricane deductible" and how it placed NOAA, and its National Hurricane Center in particular, in a very difficult situation. Specifically, the NHC's preliminary (and not yet final) characterization of the meteorological characteristics of Sandy at landfall implicated tens of billions of dollars in winners and losers among those who suffered property damage from the storm. Predictably, the NHC's characterization of Sandy has attracted the interests of politicians who have pressured NOAA to make its decisions about the storm's status at landfall in a politically preferred manner.

When NOAA empaneled a post-Sandy assessment team (a routine action) and then immediately terminated it (far from routine), it raised eyebrows. NOAA then reconstituted an assessment team comprised only of government officials who, we have now learned, have been required to sign non-disclosure agreements and to work outside of the provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Both steps create the appearance of wanting to keep something secret. They certainly do not suggest transparency. Having served as an outside member on a politcally sensitive post-disaster NOAA assessment (Red River Floods, 1997), I do know how such investigations work.

After NOAA starting acting strangely on its Sandy investigation, Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), chairman of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, a letter with some pointed questions (PDF).  NOAA responded to this letter last week with a vacuous and non-responsive letter (PDF), a step almost guaranteed to focus even more attention on the agency.

Rep. Broun apparently did not like the fact that NOAA completely ignored his oversight, because yesterday he sent a second, strongly worded letter (PDF). In it Rep. Broun asks NOAA the same questions, requiring a point-by-point response, and he also challenges NOAA's commitment to transparency and openness.

Broun's new letter makes note of some new details that should raise the interest of anyone interested in that messy space where science and politics meet up (including bloggers and the media who have thus far completely ignored this issue, but I digress):
  • NOAA dramatically scaled back the scope of its post-Sandy assessment, now NHC is not even mentioned in the new assessment charter, yet was the focus of the original charter;
  • The new assessment does not need approval by NOAA offices, rather sign-off on the new assessment is closely held by the NOAA administration;
  • NOAA cites FACA as a reason for limiting participation in the assessment -- contrary to FACA's intended purpose, and contrary to recent recommendations for such assessments by the National Research Council;
  • NOAA cites a need for timeliness as an excuse not to include outsiders, however their internal assessment is not due to start until after the holidays, some 10 weeks after Sandy.
  • Remarkably, participants in the new assessment are required to sign non-disclosure agreements (this fact alone is remarkable, what could NOAA conceivably want to remain non-disclosed?).
Rep. Broun concludes his letter:
I remain concerned that the NWS Sandy service Assessment lacks sufficient independence as non-governmental participation has been scaled back, confidentiality clauses have been added, and management influence has grown. NOAA has also narrowed the assessment to the point that it may not substantively inform future agency actions.
Rep. Broun's letter makes no mention of the "hurricane deductible" but it would be surprising if it was not in some way related to NOAA's strange behavior.  Acting like you have something to hide -- whether you do or not -- is a sure way to get the attention  of congressional overseers. NOAA's response is requested by 4 January 2012. Stay tuned.


  1. Thank you for following this process, Professor Pielke. While I do not know if the issues implied with this report are common or exceptional, I do know that there are definite biases in reporting, especially through mainstream journalists to the general public, through commission, omission, and distortion.

    Has there ever been a time when scientific inquiry and politics have been separated and assessed independently? Is there any interest which could be considered not "special" and factually objective?

    I conclude that from my experience over the last three years or so, you and your father have been welcome resources. One of several valuable "independent" sources from which to glean information. I appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge and insight.

  2. This sounds like science in the courtroom where you never ask a question if you don't already know how the witness will answer it. In other words, questions are structured to find support as opposed to insight. It's a bad enough practice there but at least it's an adversarial process and you cannot completely control the type of questions your opponents will ask. Using the legal system's approach of "experts" who can be counted on to draw predictable conclusions in a non-adversarial inquiry will surely lead to "neat, simple and wrong" answers that we were warned about as undergraduate students. Whoever is pulling the strings at NOAA may win battle or two, but it's a sure way to lose a war.

  3. There is potentially much more at work than the insurance deductible. NYC has great plans for increased waterfront development (Vision 2020) that may be complicated by the surge findings. Additionally, Bloomberg recently asserted in defense of continued waterfront development - Post Sandy -that the new Averne by the Sea project faired well. However this project was built on 5 feet of elevated fill. What were the surge impacts on adjacent properties from this project - who knows? What impact did the landfilling creating Battery Park have on the Sandy's surge level? The continued development of NYC's waterfront properties alters the surge dynamics. How do we compare historical surge data over time accounting for harbor modifications, landfill, sea walls and building construction. A question that has serious political consequences to the future of NYC development.

  4. Just a thought, but when a Congressman with oversight over your agency has to tell you "answer... by referencing the numbered sequence below", that's probably not a good thing.

  5. Roger,

    As the co-chair of the original Sandy assessment, I wish to clarify an item in your column.

    While the draft charter did include NHC, we were told -- in no uncertain terms -- we could not travel to NHC and do in-person interviews there. As co-chair, I strongly resisted. Without going into the details, we found a way for three of us to get to NHC and stay within the budget requirements. Two days later, we were terminated. I do not believe the timing was coincidental.


  6. Mike,
    Can you comment further on NHC? What reason was given for forbidding travel to NHC? Were you told not to interview their staff at all, or just not to interview them in person?

  7. Sure, Howard.

    We were told, multiple times, not to travel to NHC. However, there was money in the budget to travel to less important (in our view) areas. So, we had a plan to send a three person subgroup to go to NHC and found we could stay within budget. As I said above, we were terminated two days later.

  8. Thanks for the clarification, Mike.

  9. Roger -

    What's the story behind what got crossed out? Why would you have made such an assertion if you weren't sure about the facts?

  10. -9-Joshua

    Thanks, the letter from Broun to Lubchenco asserts that assessment team members are required to "sign non-disclosure agreements."

    I found this so incredible that I made my own inquiry to NWS/NOAA. They promptly replied that there is no such requirement.

    So at best there is a dispute here between House Science and NOAA -- at worst House Science is wrong in its allegation or NOAA is not playing straight. Absent further evidence, I'll go with NOAA being innocent until proven guilty.

    Hope that is clear, Thanks!

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  12. Unfortunately, Congressman Broun's questions are tainted by his dismissal of facts and scientific finding that don't support his worldview (i.e. evolution, big bang theory, global climate change) and his desire to shut down federal regulatory agencies. Further, Congressman Broun uses his position to make political points.

    This whole fiasco illustrates why it is so important to insulate science from politics. You have speculated that NOAA's classification of Sandy as a post-tropical cyclone may have been motivated by political pressure to help reduce insurance deductibles for property owners. NOAA should make their data available and allow the scientific community (and policy makers) to assess their classification. If cyclone classification is not supported by the data it should be changed and those responsible for the misclassification should be fired. Policy makers should expect that scientific interpretations are based on expertise rather than political motivations and confront agencies when they suspect otherwise. Given his history of distain for science, however, Broun's letters are reasonably understood as a political play to embarrass NOAA, an agency that has provided incontrovertible evidence for global climate change (characterized by Broun as a hoax).