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Performance Reviews Support David Coppedge’s Claim that NASA Punished Him for Advocating Intelligent Design

David Klinghoffer

JPL main control.jpg

In our home we’re currently going over our kids’ school report cards. Thankfully, most are the kind where, looking over the teacher’s marks and comments, you say “Oh, isn’t that nice,” and put it aside with a smile and some relief. I’ll admit, though, that one of our kids has been getting grades of late that make a parent gulp and say, “Uh oh.”
Reading over David Coppedge’s Employee Contribution Assessment and Planning (ECAP) reports, from his tenure as a 14-year veteran computer specialist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, is exactly like reading a kid’s report cards. Having now reviewed his ECAPs, I can tell you that Coppedge received fine marks right up until the moment that supervisors turned their attention to his support for intelligent design.
At that point, “Oh, isn’t that nice” turned on a dime into, “Uh oh.”
JPL has to document such things carefully. As a large quasi-academic organization funded by the federal government, they may be called on later to justify actions taken against employees. That’s exactly what the trial going on in a California Superior Court room in Los Angeles is all about.
Coppedge maintains that supervisors punished him not for poor performance but chiefly because he was being too open about his advocacy of ID. JPL’s legal team seeks to cast the matter as one without ideological significance of any kind, where an unsatisfactory employee was warned numerous times to clean up his act, he failed to do so, and was finally laid off.
In a brutal take-no-prisoners style, JPL’s team has done everything it can to impeach Coppedge’s account of himself, even accusing him of an ethics violation for selling the occasional pro-ID DVD to interested co-workers and neglecting to report it as doing other business while on the job. Next thing you know they’ll make it an issue that he took home a ballpoint pen to work the Sunday crossword puzzle.*
The problem for JPL is those ECAPs, which give the most official possible picture of what Coppedge was like to work with. On the printed forms, there are spaces for comments from the employee’s supervisor and boxes to check in various performance categories, ranging from DN (“Does not meet expectations”) to M (“Meets expectations”) and ME (“Meets and sometimes exceeds expectations”) to E (“Exceeds expectations”). So let’s look at those records.
Coppedge starts off strong in 2002-2003, when he makes the transition from contract worker to full-time employee. In ECAP documents signed by his supervisor C.A. Burgess, he receives congratulations for doing a “great job supporting the Cassini Project,” someone relied on and “truly appreciate[d]” for “special service.”
In subsequent years (2003-2004), he gets strong marks for “appropriate verbal and written communication skills” (ME), establishing “effective working relationships” (M), and demonstrating “the knowledge and skills appropriate to the job to ensure a high level of performance” (ME).
Moving forward in time, Burgess observes that Coppedge “had many difficult customers” but could “deal with them and understand their problems to such a degree that they’re all working together now towards a common goal” (2004-2005). “Most on the Cassini Project have good words for David,” with one unnamed exception who has “some reservations.” In any event, in light of his overall performance, “This is working out well now” (2005-2006).
“David has done a good job this year” (2006-2007). “Dave has gone above and beyond what would be normally expected to communicate with individual & teams who have expressed dissatisfaction with prior interactions.” “Dave is technically competent” and “has most of his project customers supporting what he’s trying to do for them” (2007-2008).
In a tough environment that is fairly typical of a government-style bureaucracy, this is all good, all nice. It’s only when we get to his ECAPs of the very next year, dated April 1, 2009, that things take a dramatic turn for the worse.
Suddenly, we find another supervisor, Greg Chin, weighing in. Chin admits Coppedge’s technical competence, his “accuracy, thoroughness and orderliness,” but out of nowhere lays into his “interpersonal and communications skills.” The very skills that previously had met or exceeded expectations were now the subject of scathing and ominous criticism.
People around Coppedge are voicing “reservations in dealing with him.” When the veiled and unsourced critiques are “brought to his attention, Dave demands to know who these people are…so that he ‘can fix’ the situation….Dave can be controlling and/or micro-managing,” he “stifles growth and creativity among his team; he is not a strong leader.”
Notice how Chin interprets even a natural desire to know who was talking in these terms about him, and to make amends (“fix the situation”), as an offense in itself. You don’t have to be a mid-level bureaucratic manager yourself to know this is how people write about you when they’re gathering ammunition to do something adverse.
The date of the document, April 1, 2009, when it was signed by Burgess and Coppedge, is important because it’s barely a month after the March 2 confrontation when Chin shouted at Coppedge to “stop pushing your religion,” intelligent design. That was after a colleague complained about a pro-ID DVD that Coppedge lent her. Stirred up by Greg Chin, a Human Resources investigation had already begun assembling further criticisms that somehow never made it into all those previous years of quite satisfactory ECAPs.
Shortly after this, JPL management agreed among themselves to demote Coppedge and strip him of his “team lead” designation, an embarrassment in front of his colleagues. On April 13, 2009, they informed him of the move, simultaneously delivering a written warning. In January 2011, they finally fired David Coppedge.
The law is an art and a science and something of a game. No one can know or even guess what Judge Ernest Hiroshige is thinking about all this now that Coppedge has concluded his testimony and cross-examination and other witnesses take the stand.
But simply from the perspective of a reasonable person, employing common sense, this sure does look like what we’ve been saying it is all along. Coppedge was doing just fine at JPL, with every reason to expect a smooth ride as he approaches retirement age. That is, until the matter of intelligent design came up. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with its longstanding research interest in the origins of life, sacked him for being an ID advocate.
At JPL, as at other academic institutions and not least those associated with the federal government, ID is a red flag. You can’t bring it up for discussion, except to condemn it, without the expectation of being gored or trampled to death. That’s how the “scientific consensus” in favor of Darwinian evolution and materialist orthodoxy actually works.
* This is merely an illustration. ENV has no reason to believe Mr. Coppedge brought home a ballpoint pen from the office or has ever worked a crossword, Sudoku or other number- or word-based puzzle game.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.



David CoppedgeHelen Pearsonintelligent designJet Propulsion LaboratoryJoe ThortonLaw and CourtslawsuitMichael BeheNASAnaturetrial