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 September 12, 2019
Why NOAA matters

 When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rebuked its own meteorologists on Friday for contradicting President Trump, the uproar that followed demonstrated more than the usual concern over political interference in science.

That pushback, which now includes inquiries from both Congress and the inspector general responsible for NOAA, reflects a deeper anxiety: The notion that one of the country's leading science agencies, which has thus far received more autonomy from Mr. Trump's White House than other parts of the federal government, might now be losing that autonomy.

To recap: On Sept. 1, the president wrote on Twitter that Alabama "will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated." A few minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted a message on Twitter saying that "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian." NOAA, which oversees the weather service, issued a statement on Sept. 6 rebuking the Birmingham office.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that NOAA's statement came at the behest of the White House.

Understanding the furor of the past few days requires an understanding of NOAA's role and its importance, especially in measuring what's happening to the planet. Its centrality to climate research could be calculated in many ways, including the steady stream of climate-related science it has continued to produce. The agency 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 work continued long after the Environmental Protection Agency took down the climate page on its website "to reflect E.P.A.'s priorities under the leadership of President Trump." It continued after the United States Geological Survey was instructed to stop projecting the impact of climate change after 2040, when the most severe impacts are expected. It continued after the head of the Climate and Health Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention filed a whistle blower complaint that alleged retaliation for speaking out on climate change.

NOAA's independence is partly structural, according to current and former staff members and outside experts. Unlike the E.P.A. and many other agencies, NOAA isn't primarily a regulatory agency (the regulations it does handle mainly concern fisheries). That means there are few businesses with a financial stake in weakening the agency or limiting its authority.

Culture matters, too. NOAA's scientists, and the career staff members who oversee them, have a reputation for fiercely guarding the agency's independence. They seem to feel they've been successful. 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 most of the time Mr. Trump has been president, in other words, NOAA has flown under the radar.

That changed during the past 10 days, as the agency's skill at avoiding the political spotlight was eclipsed by Mr. Trump's refusal to admit that he was wrong, coupled with the lengths to which his White House proved willing to go to reset the record.

The question that remains is whether this episode will inflict a sufficiently high price on Mr. Trump to restore the measure of autonomy that NOAA once enjoyed, in this and future administrations. The answer to that question will depend partly on the findings of the two inquiries --- one by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the other from the inspector general at the Department of Commerce.

But it will also depend on the strength of the perception, by scientists and the broader public, that meddling with NOAA is beyond the bounds of whatever constitutes acceptable political behavior.

"There is a price to pay for compromising NOAA's independence," said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The public is clamoring for information it can trust."