SILVER SPRING, Md. — On Friday morning in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., government scientists in khakis and sensible shoes bustled to work — beneath a towering bronze sculpture of a hand releasing seabirds — heading for a small scientific agency caught up in a political mess triggered by President Trump’s tweet about Hurricane Dorian.
One of the arriving employees was Neil Jacobs, the head of the agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’re under investigation,” a weary looking Dr. Jacobs said, a large messenger bag slung over his shoulder. “I can’t talk.”
The investigations are examining an attack on the independence of an agency that, despite its enormous importance to the United States economy, typically flies well below the radar. That changed in recent weeks when meteorologists working for NOAA corrected Mr. Trump on Twitter after he inaccurately described Hurricane Dorian’s path. The president then ordered the agency to support his version of events, triggering a political clash.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hardly a household name, yet it plays a significant role in modern life.
One of its main jobs is weather forecasting, producing the data that farmers trust to plant their crops, airlines rely on to design their routes and millions of Americans check obsessively on their smartphones. The agency also studies the world’s oceans, regulates fisheries and operates sophisticated satellites that, among other things, detect threats in space to help protect astronauts.
It “touches every American life every single day, in a constructive fashion that’s generally appreciated,” said Kathryn Sullivan, who was nominated to senior scientific roles by Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and went on to run NOAA under President Barack Obama.
NOAA’s scientific research is also central to the United States’ ability to understand climate change — a role that requires the agency to conduct independent research, but puts it at cross purposes with a White House that has repeatedly expressed skepticism of the established science of global warming.
Considering that, it is notable that the clash between Mr. Trump and the agency wasn’t about climate science — which Mr. Trump in the past has described as a hoax — but over a statement by meteorologists reassuring people in Alabama that (contrary to the president’s assertions) they were safe from Hurricane Dorian.
The White House referred a request for comment to the Commerce Department, which oversees the agency and whose secretary, Wilbur Ross, threatened to fire NOAA employees amid the clash. In a statement, Kevin Manning, a spokesman for the department, said that “Secretary Ross did not threaten to fire any NOAA staff over forecasting and public statements about Hurricane Dorian.”
NOAA’s independence is partly structural, according to current and former staff members. With the exception of the fisheries section, none of its divisions is primarily focused on regulation. So — unlike, say, the Environmental Protection Agency or other government regulatory bodies — there are few industries with a financial stake in weakening the agency or limiting its authority.
The agency has continued to produce a steady stream of climate-related science. It puts out an annual Global Climate Report and told the public just a few weeks ago that this July was the hottest on record.
That stands in contrast to the actions of some other federal agencies.
The Environmental Protection Agency two years ago deleted the climate page from its website “to reflect E.P.A.’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump.” At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the head of the Climate and Health Program recently filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging retaliation for speaking out on climate change.
NOAA’s ability to continue pursuing and disseminating climate science stems partly from its relative anonymity, even within the federal government. “NOAA is a very small agency,” said Paul Sandifer, the agency’s chief science adviser from 2011 to 2014. With fewer staff and a slimmer budget than other scientific agencies, he said, it has generally managed to evade scrutiny from the White House.
The agency is actually an amalgam of six separate pieces. The National Weather Service, whose Birmingham office was the target of Mr. Trump’s ire, is responsible for forecasting. The Marine Fisheries Service manages the waters off the country’s coasts, and a separate office, the National Ocean Service, produces coastal and oceanic science.
The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research provides “science to better manage the environment,” according to NOAA, and Marine & Aviation Operations runs the ships and planes that gather data. The agency’s satellite service “acquires and manages the Nation’s operational environmental satellites.”
Many industries rely on the climate information produced by NOAA, according to Eileen Shea, who was chief of the agency’s climate services division from 2007 to 2012. They include insurers, agricultural producers and anyone deciding where to invest money in building a new facility.
“There are corporations and lobbying groups with a very big interest in continuing to see climate data be available,” Ms. Shea said.
Culture within the agency matters, too. NOAA’s scientists, and the career staff members who oversee them, have a reputation for guarding the agency’s independence. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists asked more than 63,000 scientists at 16 federal agencies to gauge their perceived independence. Of the scientists at NOAA who responded, two-thirds agreed with the statement that the agency “adheres to its scientific integrity policy.” (For comparison, one-third of E.P.A. scientists felt the same way.)
Friday afternoon, Dr. Jacobs sent an all-staff email to try to buck up the troops. “Scientific integrity is at the heart of NOAA’s mission and culture, and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust,” he wrote. “Our work saves lives.”
The agency’s sense of independence partly reflects the fact that, unlike employees of other federal agencies, the agency’s employees tend to live in the places they serve and see themselves as the defenders of those places. “You actually want to tell me to not give my neighbors the best information I have when a storm is bearing down on them?” said Dr. Sullivan, describing the typical view of those scientists.
But it also reflects the incentives facing the agency’s staff. Researchers there often have close relationships with universities, collaborating with academics on peer-reviewed papers that can advance their careers, according to Rick Spinrad, who was NOAA’s chief scientist from 2014 to 2017.
The perception that agency scientists are subject to political interference could cause outside academics to stop working with them, he said. “Anything that they view as threatening that relationship is going to induce a pretty visceral reaction,” Dr. Spinrad said.
Past administrations have at times tested NOAA’s independence, said Terry Garcia, who was the agency’s general counsel under President Bill Clinton. He recounted other agencies pushing NOAA scientists to interpret the Endangered Species Act — which gives NOAA responsibility for protecting salmon and other animals — in a way that would help private landowners. The agency resisted that pressure, he said.
The Dorian episode isn’t NOAA’s first test under the Trump administration.
In 2017, the president nominated Barry L. Myers, then the chief executive officer of AccuWeather, to run the agency. Mr. Myers had previously called to privatize the weather service, a stance that generated opposition both inside and outside NOAA. His nomination has since stalled.
Craig McLean, NOAA’s acting chief scientist, who has filed a complaint with the agency alleging it violated its scientific-integrity policy, said he believes the current problems will dissipate. “We’ve had spurious attacks over time,” Dr. McLean said. “We’ve gotten past them.”
Meanwhile on Friday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center, an office of NOAA, was watching a storm of a different kind — so far known simply as “Potential Tropical Cyclone Nine” — move northwest off the coast of the Bahamas in order to start determining when and where it might strike the United States.
For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting from Huntsville, Ala. Lisa Friedman contributed reporting from Washington.
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