U.S. agency violated science policy by backing Trump hurricane tweet, report finds

U.S. President Trump participates in roundtable discussion at the White House in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. agency that warns of dangerous weather violated its policy on scientific integrity with a statement last year backing a tweeted forecast by President Donald Trump about the path of a hurricane, according to a report released on Monday.

Trump wrote on Twitter on Sept. 1 that Alabama would be among U.S. states that would "most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian, then one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record.

Within minutes, the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama, responded by saying that Alabama would not see any impacts from Dorian.

After days of controversy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the Commerce Department headed by Wilbur Ross, released a statement on Sept. 6 saying the Birmingham tweet was "inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time."

A report conducted on NOAA’s behalf by a panel set up by the non-partisan National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), found the NOAA's acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, and its former deputy chief of staff and communications director, Julie Kay Roberts, violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy with the statement.

In a memo posted along with the report on the NOAA's website, Stephen Volz, the NOAA official responsible for scientific integrity, said the NAPA panel found the pair did so "intentionally, knowingly, or in reckless disregard" of the code of conduct.

In his memo, Volz said Jacobs and Roberts did not believe it was a good idea to release a statement, but "felt significant external pressure to do so."

The controversy became known as "Sharpiegate," after Trump displayed a modified NOAA map to depict the storm threatening Alabama.

The New York Times reported last year that Ross threatened to fire top employees after the Birmingham office contradicted Trump and that then acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had directed Ross to order the NOAA to disavow the NWS tweet.

In a statement on the NOAA website responding to the NAPA report, Jacobs said its analysis was based on the premise that either Trump’s tweet, or that from the Birmingham office was right, and the NOAA was choosing between the two, which was not the case.

"NAPA never questions or refutes the scientific veracity of the actual statement," he said.

In a letter posted on the NOAA site, Roberts said the panel had failed to "provide the complete picture of what occurred and the contextual factors that played a role in the statement issued on September 6."

The NOAA's acting director of communications, Scott Smullen, said it welcomed the NAPA report and its recommendations, which "would strengthen the policy of consulting NOAA scientists in developing communications materials involving their expertise."

"Scientific integrity is at the core of NOAA’s work and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust in the agency’s ability to provide accurate, thorough and timely science," he said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Grant McCool and Michael Perry)