Yesterday I passed on a report that appointed officials at NASA seemed determined to prevent scientists from deviating from the party line, as confirmed by interviews with both the director and public affairs officers at the Goddard Space Flight Center. This bit seemed particularly troubling:
At climate laboratories of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, many scientists who routinely took calls from reporters five years ago can now do so only if the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and then only if a public affairs officer is present or on the phone.
Government scientists can only speak to the press in the presence of handlers. Where have I heard that before? Give me a minute, it’ll come to me.
In an unexpected turn House Science Committee chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) today wrote a prompt letter in reply to the NASA administrator, Dr. Michael Griffin:
Dear Dr. Griffin:
I am writing in response to several recent news articles indicating that officials at NASA may be trying to “silence” Dr. James Hansen, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
It ought to go without saying that government scientists must be free to describe their scientific conclusions and the implications of those conclusions to their fellow scientists, policymakers and the general public. Any effort to censor federal scientists biases public discussions of scientific issues, increases distrust of the government and makes it difficult for the government to attract the best scientists. And when it comes to an issue like climate change, a subject of ongoing public debate with immense ramifications, the government ought to be bending over backward to make sure that its scientists are able to discuss their work and what it means.
Good science cannot long persist in an atmosphere of intimidation. Political figures ought to be reviewing their public statements to make sure they are consistent with the best available science; scientists should not be reviewing their statements to make sure they are consistent with the current political orthodoxy.
NASA is clearly doing something wrong, given the sense of intimidation felt by Dr. Hansen and others who work with him. Even if this sense is a result of a misinterpretation of NASA policies – and more seems to be at play here – the problem still must be corrected. I will be following this matter closely to ensure that the right staff and policies are in place at NASA to encourage open discussion of critical scientific issues. I assume you share that goal.
Our staff is already setting up meetings to pursue this issue and I appreciate NASA’s responsiveness to our inquiries thus far. I would ask that you swiftly provide to the Committee, in writing, a clear statement of NASA’s policies governing the activities of its scientists.
NASA is one of the nation’s leading scientific institutions. I look forward to working with you to keep it that way, and to ensure that the entire nation gets the full benefit of NASA sciences.
Good news, but needless to say the devil is in the details. Recall for example that Goddard officials described intimidation that was conducted strictly through unofficial channels (same link as above), which would make a reiteration of ‘official’ harrassment policy largely meaningless in this context:
[Goddard director Dr. James Hansen] said he was particularly incensed that directives had come through telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents.
Nonetheless, Boehlert deserves credit if he genuinely plans to hold hearings on the question of scientific intimidation. In the spirit of blogospheric-government cooperation I’d like to recommend a few witnesses. First, Rep. Joe Barton (R – TX):
Barton, an 11-term Republican from Texas, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and one of the oil lobby’s best friends on Capitol Hill. Late last month he fired off letters to professor Michael Mann of the University of Virginia and two other scientists demanding information about what he claimed were “methodological flaws and data errors” in their studies of global warming.
Barton’s letters to the scientists had a peremptory, hen-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife tone. Mann was told that within less than three weeks, he must list “all financial support you have received related to your research,” provide “the location of all data archives relating to each published study for which you were an author,” “provide all agreements relating to . . . underlying grants or funding,” and deliver similarly detailed information in five other categories.
Next, Sen. Larry Craig (R – ID):
Salmon math has clearly riled up Craig, who in his last election campaign in 2002 received more money from electric utilities than from any other industry and who has been named “legislator of the year” by the National Hydropower Association.
The Fish Passage Center has documented, in excruciating statistical detail, how the Columbia-Snake hydroelectric system kills salmon. Its analyses of fish survival data also suggest that one way to increase salmon survival is to spill more water over dams, rather than feed it through electrical turbines.
…Last summer, a federal judge in Portland, using data and analysis from the Fish Passage Center, infuriated the utilities. He ordered that water be spilled over federal dams in the Snake River to increase salmon survival. Shortly after Judge James A. Redden issued his order, Craig began pushing [successfully] to cut all funding for the Fish Passage Center.
That’ll make a lively first day of testimony. If Rep. Boehlert feels in the mood for a quick read he or his staff can pick up many more ideas from this helpful book.