Monday July 9, 2007
I’ve worked in a government bureaucracy, and I’ve seen people lose their jobs when they publicly said stuff that made their bosses uncomfortable, so when the shit started to fly around Bill Proenza last month, I was the first to support him. Well, new shit has come to light. SotP has been following the story (and has been consistent about sticking up for Proenza, and scathing toward his critics). Not only have more then half of the staff of the National Hurricane Center that Proenza heads signed a petition against him, but it seems that the scrutiny from above came at their urging as well. I think it’s time to give this guy a closer look, not just blindly defend him.
There are two possible scenarios here: (1) Bill Proenza is all about the integrity — he puts the public’s interests first, and is not afraid to tell it like it is, even if it pisses off those around him. (2) Bill Proenza is an asshole who has pissed off those above him by grandstanding and those below him by not focusing on the job at hand, and by making their lives miserable.
Well, the main thing that Proenza has been outspoken about is QuikSCAT, claiming that if the satellite dies, “two-day forecasts would suffer by 10 percent and three-day forecasts by 16 percent.” It turns out that this claim is based on a a mis-reading of some unpublished research. Jeff Masters tracked down the same research, and de-bunks some of the errors of Proenza’s reasoning. The study looked primarily at hurricanes out at sea (when hurricanes are within 72 hours of landfall, superior information is obtained by the Hurricane Hunters). The study only used one weather model; hurricane predictions use at least five. Masters cites a much more thorough study that found “no meaningful impact of QuikSCAT data on tropical cyclone forecasts.” In other words, Proenza’s 10/16% claim is bullshit.
Let’s look more closely at the voices from inside the National Hurricane Center that have turned against Proenza. Keep in mind that this guy has been on the job for a few months, while many of the senior staff have been there decades. 23 out of 49 employees (including all the senior staff) signed a petition [PDF] calling for his removal (some others didn’t sign because they were not around). Their wording is careful, but the underlying subtext is clear: “This guy has made working here difficult. The public is not served well when our job is more difficult then it needs to be.” Calling these people cowards is obstinate — they have nothing to gain from taking a public stand against their boss. In fact, insofar as his removal is uncertain at this point, they have much to lose.
The director of an agency doesn’t do the work there — he does some management, but mainly he’s the public face of the agency. The staff do the work. Well, the staff held a press conference Friday, and Masters has a transcript. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a quote from Senior Hurricane Specialist James Franklin:
When things are really happening, we’ve got a Katrina out there or a Rita type of storms, everybody needs to stop what they’re doing and pull together and make sure our message gets out and that we’re doing the best job that we can to make the best forecast. We’ve got a lot of people pulling together to do that. That takes a certain amount of teamwork and appreciation of sense of family and he’s destroying that, he’s destroying that.
The others add a lot more specifics. I think the conclusion here is clear — Proenza is an asshole, and he’s difficult to work with. He’s wrong about QuikSCAT, but the real problem is that he’s making the situation inside the NHC difficult for the people actually doing the job of predicting the hurricanes. Those are the people we should be sticking up for, no the guy who flies around the country making wild public statements. Some of Proenza’s claims about his superiors’ priorities are probably well founded, but his job is to run the Hurricane Center, and if everyone who works there hates him enough to publicly say so, then it’s absurd not to listen. It’s absurd to accuse them of playing politics; these are scientists and they want what everybody with a serious job wants: to do a good job.
So… is Proenza going to step down? Well, Margie Kieper rounded up the news yesterday, and it seems to indicate that he will (she also has some visual demonstrations of QuikSCAT imagery, compared to imagery from other satellites). Let’s hope we get someone else in there soon enough to get the ship together before we get hit with the first storm of the season.
Update [6:25 pm]: For better or worse, Proenza’s out. Everything else aside, the way NOAA handled this stinks. “Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration . . . would not say whether Proenza was ordered to take leave or voluntarily left the agency. He said Proenza is still a NOAA employee, but he would not provide details about Proenza’s status, citing privacy laws.” What a crock.comments powered by Disqus