In Response to Democracy Forward Request, NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee Opened — Then Abruptly Postponed — Inquiry, Without Producing Mandatory 90-Day Report on Findings
Democracy Forward Questions “Unauthorized and Unjustified” Delay, Demands NOAA Inquiry Resume
Washington, D.C. — Today, Democracy Forward requested that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Scientific Integrity Committee release its inquiry report into Trump administration officials’ potentially illegal political interference in the finalization of conservation measures for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale — whose population has dwindled to 400 worldwide.
Today’s letter comes after NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee first opened a scientific misconduct inquiry in April in response to Democracy Forward’s letter, but has now put the inquiry “on hold” in consultation with NOAA’s Office of the General Counsel — just days after missing the deadline to release a mandatory inquiry report.
“The Scientific Integrity Committee’s abrupt halt to the inquiry is unjustified and inconsistent with the Committee’s own processes,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Michael Martinez. “We urge the Scientific Integrity Committee to proceed with its inquiry, release its overdue report, and uphold the standards of science required of it.”
On March 26, Democracy Forward requested that NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Officer and the Commerce Department’s Inspector General investigate whether political appointees at NOAA unlawfully altered proposed conservation measures protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale in order to expand offshore drilling.
On April 27, NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee opened an inquiry into Democracy Forward’s investigatory complaint, starting the 90-day clock for the Committee to collect and evaluate evidence and produce a final scientific misconduct inquiry report. An inquiry report typically includes a list of records reviewed, summaries of interviews, and a recommendation for a full-fledged investigation or other actions needed to restore scientific integrity. Per the Committee’s procedural handbook, Democracy Forward should have received the inquiry report on or around July 26.
On July 29, NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee notified Democracy Forward by email that it was putting the inquiry “on hold.”
In postponing its inquiry, the Committee cited separate, ongoing litigation against NOAA over its weakening of protections for the North Atlantic right whale. That litigation and the scientific integrity inquiry are distinct matters; nothing in the Committee’s handbook allows the postponement of an inquiry because of pending litigation. Notably, the referenced litigation began in December 2018. Yet, the Committee never raised the litigation as a hindrance when it opened its inquiry on April 27 — raising questions about its belated rationale for the postponement.
The Scientific Integrity Committee’s decision was also made in consultation with NOAA’s Office of the General Counsel, which has been criticized for infusing politics into science. Most recently, the Commerce Department’s Inspector General issued an unusual public criticism of the agency for effectively preventing the IG from issuing her “Sharpiegate” report in order to protect senior political appointees. John Luce, NOAA’s General Counsel, helped produce the agency’s rationale for shielding the Inspector General’s report from public release.
NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee exists to “strengthen widespread confidence – from scientists, to decision-makers, to the general public – in the quality, validity, and reliability of NOAA science.” Its postponement of this inquiry, however, risks undermining public confidence in the quality, validity, and reliability of NOAA science.
Democracy Forward believes the pending federal court litigation has no bearing on the investigatory complaint and requests that the Committee resumes its inquiry and release a final inquiry report.
The letter to NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Committee was sent on August 26. Read it here.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.