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April 05, 2007

NOAA’s New Media Policy: A Recipe for Conflict

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science + Politics | The Honest Broker

The Department of Commerce, the parent agency of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has released a new media policy for its employees (thanks to an alert Prometheus reader for pointing us to it). The new policy was prepared in response to criticisms levied against the agency for its media policies related to agency scientists which some viewed as over-bearing and too politicized. Unfortunately, the new policy does little to address the challenges of public communication in highly politicized contexts, and probably makes things worse.

The new media policy can be found here in PDF. It seeks to draw dark lines between different activities and information. For instance, the policy seeks to distinguish a "Fundamental Research Communication" from an "Official Communication." A FRC is defined as:

means a Public Communication that relates to the Department's programs, policies, or operations and takes place or is prepared officially (i.e., under Section 6.03a. 1-4) and that deals with the products of basic or applied research in science or engineering, the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly within the scientific community, so long as the communication does not contain information that is proprietary, classified, or restricted by federal statute. If a communication also includes matters of policy, budget, or management, then it is not a Fundamental Research Communication.

By Contrast, an OC is defined as:

any Public Communication by an employee that relates to the Department's programs, policies, or operations and takes place or is prepared:

1. At the direction of a superior of the employee;

2. Substantially during the official working hours of the employee;

3. With the substantial use of U.S. Government resource(s); or

4. With substantial assistance of U.S. Government employee(s) on official duty. All news releases and similar documents are Official Communications.

This effort to distinguish research from other activities sets up a first point of inevitable conflict:

Although, by definition, an Official Communication is not a Fundamental Research Communication, for an Official Communication that deals with the products of basic or applied research in science or engineering, the role of the public affairs office is to assist with presentation, style, and logistics of the science or engineering information, not to alter its substance in any way.

It is impossible to preserve the precise substance of a scientific paper in a press release, unless one simply reprints the entire scientific paper. Even the choice of what to present and what not to present will alter the meaning in some manner, and the job of a press release is to simplify. In this circumstance, if a scientist does not like how their work has been presented, they need only cry that their work has been altered in some way, which of course will be true. If the Public Affairs official complains, then the dispute could wind up on the pages of the New York Times. This may or may not be desired, but NOAA should recognize that conflict is the inevitable result.

Or consider a research paper on NOAA's forecast process in the National Weather Service, is this an FRC or an OC? And who decides? There will be considerable overlap between the two, setting the stage for conflict.

Another inevitable point of conflict is found in the description of how communications are to be approved:

Based on the operating unit's internal procedures, all written and audiovisual materials that are, or are prepared in connection with, a Fundamental Research Communication must be submitted by the researcher, before the communication occurs, to the head of the operating unit, or his or her designee(s), for approval in a timely manner. These procedures may not permit approval or non-approval to be based on the policy, budget, or management implications of the research.

The guidelines do not explain how the agency will enforce the prohibition against using criteria of policy, budget, or management as criteria for approval or nonapproval. This is because this directive in unenforceable. Consider the simple example of a scholar doing work on the policy implications of hurricane evacuation planning. If the policy research element of this work is flawed – say, it doesn’t reflect the realities of interagency communication -- does this directive prohibit using criteria of “policy” to request that the author rethink his/her work?

The guidelines then have an odd passage suggesting that individual units within the agency will have accepted scientific positions:

Department researchers may draw scientific conclusions based on research related to their jobs, and may, subject to Section 7.01, communicate those conclusions to the public and the media in a Fundamental Research Communication. However, if such a conclusion could reasonably be construed as representing the view of the Department or an operating unit when it does not, then the researcher must make clear that he or she is presenting his or her individual conclusion and not the views of the Department or an operating unit.

Scientists always have their individual views, which they publish in the literature. Whether or not they conform with an agency perspective would seem to be irrelevant. In fact, while agencies do have to have clear views on policies, why should an agency even have its own views on scientific conclusions?

The following passage might have been the core of a more sensible media policy:

Only spokespeople designated by the Appropriate Public Affairs Office are authorized to speak for the Department or its operating units in an official capacity regarding matters of policy, budget, or management.

The following is bizarre:

If, in the course of the Official Communication, an unexpected topic arises that is not the intended subject matter, the employee shall promptly notify the head of the operating unit or Secretarial office, or their designee(s).

In the FAQ explaining the policy, DOC makes matters worse when they try to cleanly separate fact from opinion:

It is not acceptable for government employees to use government resources to promote personal activities or opinions. Department researchers may draw scientific conclusions based on fundamental research related to their jobs and may communicate such information. Personal opinions that go beyond scientific conclusions based on fundamental research related to their jobs are personal communications. If employees wish to publicize their personal opinions, they may do so on their own time, as long as it doesn’t violate federal law.

This is simply unenforceable. Consider that several NOAA scientists signed a joint statement last year on hurricane policies. Their views certainly included their personal opinions. Had they provided their views from their office, on their phone, or identified as a government employee, they would be in violation of the policy. This is nonsense.

I could go on. DOC will, in my opinion, inevitably have to revisit this fundamentally flawed policy. When they do, they should take another look at NASA’s communication policy for some guidance (PDF). When creating such policies, sometimes less is more. The key distinctions to be made are not about what can be said, as drawing bright lines between science and policy, fact and opinion, which are doomed to fail in practice. The key distinctions are to be made between those who are authorized to represent agency policies and those who are not. And any government employee who feels that they cannot support the policies of the agency has opportunities to motivate change from within, and ultimately if they feel strongly enough the chance to resign and seek change from the outside.

Any government employee who uses their position to subvert government performance risks their job. If they lose their job for such a reason, then their supervisor, politically appointed or not, will experience public and political scrutiny. Recent goings on in the Department of Justice speak to this issue.

DOC and NOAA should let the mechanisms of the U.S. government work, rather than trying to over-proceduralize the communications process. Their efforts have likely created the conditions for more not less conflict.

Disclaimer: I am a fellow of CIRES here at University of Colorado. CIRES is a NOAA joint institute. I have benefited from NOAA support of my research over the past 15 years.

Posted on April 5, 2007 08:34 AM


Good grief; are you exempt from this policy yourself, or are you in violation by operating the blog and commenting on policy matters because of your associatio0n with CIRES? And did you need to ask to be sure?

Posted by: hank [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 9, 2007 06:46 PM

Hank- Thanks, I am on the faculty of the University of Colorado, so I don't fall under the NOAA policies. If I did, I'd last about 2 minutes ;-)

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 9, 2007 07:04 PM

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