Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Paroxysm of Political Paranoia Paralyzes NOAA/NWS Participation in Science

A long-time friend brought to my attention the following statement of "ethics" for NOAA/NWS employees (copied here verbatim, in its entirety):

The following is a summary of Ethics guidelines which pertain to NWS employees attending professional conferences.  This includes conferences sponsored by organizations such as The National Weather Association (NWA), American Meteorological Society (AMS) and American Society of Engineers (ASE).  Everyone should be aware of these to avoid inadvertently violating government ethics rules and inappropriately using government resources for personal use.

Professional organizations hold conferences which NWS employees frequently attend as part of their official government responsibilities.  The NWS pays for travel to the event and the employees are on official time.  Employees frequently present research or papers which they have developed as part of their NWS responsibilities, or interact as a participant with others.  Here are the general guidelines applicable to all employees.

1.      Employees attending a professional conference at Government expense in their official capacity as an NWS employee must be on approved travel orders.   Authorized costs for the conference are to be paid by the government or approved gifted travel.  Employees may not pay all or part  of these costs from their private funds.

2.     NWS may pay conference registration fees for employees attending a professional conference in their official capacity as an NWS employee.  Employees may not pay these costs if they are attending on official time in their official capacity.

3.     Supervisors must certify that costs paid by the government to send the employee to the conference are in connection with the NWS mission and the employee’s responsibilities.

4.     Approval for groups of twenty (20) or more employees on domestic travel and ten (10) or more employees on foreign travel, including invitational travelers, regardless of whether or not NOAA is funding the travel must be submitted to the Deputy Under Secretary for Operations prior to travel to the conference.  NWS Deputy Administrator approval for meetings, conferences, symposiums involving less than these thresholds may still be required.  Please check with the Chief, ASD prior to coordination of travel and/or conference planning.

5.     Employees attending a professional conference who are not on approved travel orders must be on a day off or on approved annual leave.  No expenses will be paid by the government, including registration and/or abstract fees.  The employee will be in a private capacity and cannot present research or papers developed as part of their NWS responsibilities, nor represent NOAA/NWS.

In addition to the above, we’ve received additional guidance from NOAA Office of General Counsel regarding Ethics Issues for NWS personnel that serve on the boards of other organizations.  These restrictions are as follow:

1.     Persons serving on the boards of an organization are required to disqualify themselves from any NWS matter that could have an effect on the financial interests of that organization.

2.     You may not use any Government resources in connection with your personal activities with the organization.   This means that you may not use any duty hours or your NWS email account for any NWA, AMS or similar organization activities.  You may not use your NWS title for such activities either.  (For example, you may not list your NWS title or email address on an AMS or NWA website.)  You may not disclose any nonpublic Government information and you may not take any action to imply NWS endorsement of NWA, AMS or similar organization activities.  See 5 C.F.R. § 2635.701-705.

3.     Criminal statutes bar you from contacting NWS, or any other Federal agency or Federal court, on behalf of a professional organization, to influence Government action.  See 18 U.S.C. § 205(a).  For example, if NWA plans to recommend a policy position to NWS, you may not sign a letter to NWS and your name may not appear on the NWA letterhead, even if a different NWA officer sends the letter.

4.     You may only travel to an organizations conference on official time and at government expense  if your supervisor assigns you to attend, without your input, as part of your official responsibilities.  If you are assigned to attend a conference, you may only be a passive participant, meaning that you may attend all conference activities but may not be listed on the agenda as a speaker, nor may you present materials at the conference. 

5.     If you wish to conduct activities relating to your position within an organization while at that organizations conference in your Government capacity, you may only do so while off duty.  This means, for example, that you may meet with other officers of the organization in the evening, as long as you are technically off duty at that time.

6.     In the alternative, you may take leave and attend a conference in your personal capacity.  In that scenario, the Government cannot pay for your travel to the conference and you cannot use any Government resources (such as your NWS title) while at the conference.  While you would be permitted to present remarks or materials at the conference in your personal capacity, you would not be able to present scientific papers that you developed as part of your NWS duties.  Generally, you may accept travel payments from the organization (i.e., NWA)  if you travel in your personal capacity, but you may not receive any other form of payment (such as an honorarium from NWA) if any remarks that you deliver at a conference contain references to your Government duties or NWS programs or operations.  See 5 C.F.R. § 2635.807(a).  If you are offered payment of any sort, you should contact NOAA General Counsel to confirm that such payments are acceptable in advance.

This represents a dramatic break with previous ethical boundaries and will eviscerate any opportunities for NWS employees to participate in conferences, thereby representing a policy that threatens the very existence of the NWA and, ultimately, the AMS.  Once again, it seems that NOAA, acting through the advice of its General Counsel, is responding to political pressure in a way that is destructive to the NWS.

I have long considered NOAA to be a bloated bureaucracy of incompetent parasites.  But this attack on the scientific activities of NWS employees is both inexplicable and unconscionable.  What possible reason could there be for these ridiculous new policies?  What political pressure is creating this response from NOAA General Counsel?  What ethical abuses will this prevent?  Has it ever been shown that any abuses resulting from NWS employee participation in conferences have been detrimental to NWS forecasts or to the science?   Can anyone show there is any real need for this massive change in NWS policies regarding the participation of their employees in conferences?

Of late, attendance at scientific conferences by NWS employees has been on the wane.  Presumably, this reflects a short-sighted policy in response to budget pressures associated with federal budget deficits.  The recent tendency has been to reduce the presence of NWS forecasters at scientific conferences, where a good deal of the business of science takes place.  Some NWS forecasters have been participating at their own expense and on their own time - the new policies apparently will prevent even that!  This not only inhibits the dissemination of NWS research findings, but it limits the opportunity for scientific peers to provide direct feedback to the authors of that research.

The dramatic reductions in participation in science by NWS employees we have seen will pale to insignificance when these new policies are implemented.  The impact on the NWA, which is dominated by operational weather forecasters, could be devastating.  Even the AMS will suffer as a result of the non-participation of so many operational weather forecasters.

There can be no good reason for this unnecessary change in policy.  If NWS managers buckle under the pressure of NOAA management, this will constitute a huge blow to the entire science of meteorology, which has long struggled with the operations-research interface.  An "iron curtain" will have descended on that interface, to the detriment of all.  For shame, NOAA!


Chuck Doswell said...

Update ... the NWS is no longer supporting subscriptions to AMS journals for the offices.

Further, it was pointed out to me by a necessarily anonymous NWS employee that the document I quoted effectively forbids NWS employees from participating in AMS and NWS activities such as committees, etc.

This is tantamount to a complete disengagement of the NWS from the science. My friends in the NWS are, of course, unable to say anything about this for fear of losing their jobs ...

Greg Rettinger said...

This is not a wise move in my opinion. In my career, participation in conferences have been critical to my development, and to generating excitement about my field. Not only has it been a benefit to me, but I have been able to join the industry discussion as I have gained expertise and experience, and eventually to give back as a speaker. In all cases I feel that I represent my company well, and my company benefits tremendously. The NWS will be losing out by not being part of the discussion, and by not being represented by their employees. As always, great blog Chuck.

tornado.specialist said...

Being off duty at this time, and on my own equipment, I'll damn well say something about it because there is a "U.S. Code" that trumps all else: the Constitution--specifically, the First Amendment. Other than the obvious problems you noted, with which I fully agree and need not restate, here are a few more.

* Some of these policies are new, some not; collectively they act to discourage scientific activity in a *scientific* organization. The taxpayer pays the operational meteorologists to put forth excellent forecasts, which only can happen consistently with the understanding that comes from direct scientific involvement. These rules discourage that by putting up all manner of stupid bureaucratic hurdles, demoralizing the most excellent forecasters in the organization--those who most passionately stay involved with the science and understand it best.

* Numerous forecasters, WCMs, SOOs and MICs have used professional affiliations or work time when doing volunteer activities for scientific societies, for decades. Now, no more. If it is an ethical problem, why wasn't it forbidden 25 years or more ago?

* As a change in working conditions, this hasn't been bargained...and that is a big problem.

* A Catch-22: what happens to the conference or journal paper that was written for research performed on duty time, then the conference or journal funding was denied? Based on the wording, nothing can be done with it! Presumably the research simply languishes indefinitely, unable to be presented privately due to its being done at work, unable to appear as an NWS representation due to denial of travel or publishing. The research then becomes ever more stale and dated as long as this situation continues, never reaching the intended audience of fellow atmospheric scientists or perhaps the public (taxpayers) at large. In effect, such a situation is tantamount to governmental scientific censorship by proxy.

* In the "bloated bureaucracy" of which you wrote resides the solution to the economic aspects of cuts to journal subscriptions and conference attendance. How? Drastically reducing its size, thereby freeing up resources currently wasted on top-heavy managerial overhead for the scientists to do science.

* The AMS isn't innocent in the journal-subscription cost problem either. You've written elsewhere about economic largesse and bloat in the AMS, and it's relevant here. That organization should reconsider its own part in reducing journal prices, especially now that the journals can be read entirely electronically. Maybe this is a bass-ackwards way of forcing their hand...but if so, it's punishing the scientists more than the AMS.

And yes, use my full name with the union affiliation that follows.

===== Roger Edwards =====
NWS Employees Organization
Member and former 5-term Steward

Matt Rosencrans said...

Chuck, can you provide links to the sources of these? I am not questioning your source, but if somebody wanted to write his/her representative, or ask a question of their higher-ups, they would need such information.

Chuck Doswell said...


No, I don't know who created the document I received - it was passed on to me by an NWS employee whose name I won't give here, for fear of retribution being visited on him. Presumably, it originated somewhere at NOAA/NWS Headquarters

The Mind of J. Marsh said...

AMS is very concerned about this and are seeking information. I wrote on this today at

The Mind of J. Marsh said...

On AMS Journals, AMS page charges are being reduced and as of this spring there are no charges at all for color figures. We hope your readers will note that AMS is working to make publishing costs reasonable and there has been much progress on this that many don't seem to be aware of. There were major announcements on this at the Austin meeting. AMS journals continue to be some of the highest rated journals in the field and support very high impact factors. As a publishing scholar also, I share the frustrations of page charges, but as an organization, we also are trying to be responsive.

Chuck Doswell said...

Note ... two comments are from J. Marshall Shepherd, President-Elect of the AMS. I'm making an exception to my rule that no comments will be posted that don't include a true first and last name.

I'm grateful that the AMS is investigating this situation - and well they should as this NWS policy strikes at the lifeblood of the society (money).

I think it would be an appropriate gesture for the AMS to reduce their charge for NWS subscriptions to some mutually agreeable level.

I'm pleased to hear that color figures are no longer being charged for - the old rates were simply outrageous and without justification.

Scott Mackaro said...

In an attempt to track down the source of this information, I was able to find the following document on the government's Electronic Code of Federal Regulations:

It appears the section in question is "Subpart H: § 2635.806 Participation in professional associations. [Reserved]"

Unfortunately the actual document does not appear to be here and perhaps is being circulated internally?

Jay said...

This might be devil's advocate territory, but I question how much of a departure from the past this really is for most would-be NWS conference attendees. The first list of 5 items is precisely what all government employees must follow (and have had to follow for at least the last 10 years) in order to attend a conference. And unless I am misreading the lead-in paragraph for the NOAA Office of General Counsel section, the second set of 6 rules apply only to individuals who serve on "boards of other organizations." What fraction of would-be NWS attendees serve on AMS/NWA/ASE boards?

While I agree it is undesirable to exclude NWS employees from these boards, I am not certain this qualifies as inexplicable and unconscionable considering the potential conflict of interest.

Of course, if both sets of rules will be used broadly as a means of excluding or severely limiting all NWS attendance, then I would agree it is a very serious problem indeed. But if travel for non-board members is not affected, is this truly a dramatic break from the past?

--Jay Charney

Chuck Doswell said...


I'm a bit unclear about what your point is in playing "devil's advocate" apart from perhaps trying to discredit my blog post. I suggest you ask some NWS employees about whether or not this represents a change in policy.

Jay said...


I was not trying to discredit your blog post. I value your insight into this issue. I was trying to understand your argument, since to me your objections seem too broad.

What I read from your post was that making NWS employees follow the same rules as other government employees for official travel represents "a dramatic break with previous ethical boundaries and will eviscerate any opportunities for NWS employees to participate in conferences." Since I have to follow the same rules when I travel for my government job, I find that assertion to be somewhat strong based on my experience.

I feel the restrictions for serving on boards of other organizations ARE too strong as written above, but I can understand the NWS position in that these positions could represent a conflict of interest for NWS employees who do so. This is why I questioned whether the two sets of rules are "inexplicable and unconscionable" since to me they seem pretty explicable, if not completely desirable.

In a broader sense, after reading your posts regularly for some time now, I have seldom if ever found you to be prone to hyperbole. Your opinions are strong, but your motivation for those opinions are invariably well-stated and understandable. This post struck me as hyperbolic, so I thought asking you to clarify the nature of your objections based on your understanding of what had changed would be a helpful addition to the discussion. In that I failed to clearly state the motivation for the points in my previous comment, I was not successful in contributing to the discussion. I hope this comment at least clarifies my intent.

--Jay Charney

Chuck Doswell said...


The fact that this represents a change in NWS policy is reflected by the comments I have received from NWS employees. As you know, I can't share those, for fear of retribution being visited upon them.

That serving on boards and committees of scientific societies could represent a conflict of interest is grotesquely far-fetched, and is no doubt a classic example of an imaginary problem - i.e., something envisioned by a lawyer ignorant of the realities of the situation, but in the history of the organization, so such problem has ever arisen. To the best of my knowledge, before this new policy document, there has never before been ANY mention of such a restriction on NWS employees, many of whom (including former DIRECTORS of the NWS!), have served the AMS and NWA on numerous occasions in the past - without so much as a hint of a conflict of interest. This new policy represents an enormous change, whether you accept that or not.

Another change is the draconian restriction of NWS employee participation in conferences at their own personal expense, and if they do participate, they apparently can't even mention they work for the NWS! This is another enormous break with past policy and will effectively terminate a lot of what has gone on before.

If these actions by NWS employees have been illegal all along, then the governmental policy is monumentally stupid and without any meaningful justification. I don't know (or care) what government agency you work for, but if you've been living in your agency with the policies described in my blog without protesting the absurdity of those policies, well ... you deserve what's being done to you.

You clearly have no idea the extent to which operational weather forecaster participation in the science has been valuable to the science. The operations-research divide has been difficult to bridge, but many NWS forecasters have sacrificed a lot to make important scientific contributions - and now that apparently is to be dismantled and suppressed because it MIGHT be a conflict of interest!

If you think I'm exaggerating the significance of this situation - you simply don't know what you're talking about.

Chuck Doswell said...


An unnamed NWS source has informed me that NWS Central Region has retracted this policy document. I hope the other regions will do likewise!!

Chuck Doswell said...


My sources now tell me this brouhaha was initiated in NWS Central Region - so the CR retraction of the document may signal the end of this silly episode! I sincerely hope so!!

Jan Null said...

Ironically, the following was posted online last week in WildLife Society News: Federal Employees Free to Serve in Professional Societies but it appears to apply to all federal employees. See