Report claims political interference on climate science

An investigative report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has uncovered new evidence of widespread political interference in federal climate science. The report, which includes a survey of hundreds of federal scientists at seven federal agencies and dozens of in-depth interviews, documents a high regard for climate change research but broad interference in communicating scientific results. The report is available on GAP’s Web site.

The report will be detailed today in a 10 a.m. hearing by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch, a GAP program that holds public officials accountable for how they use climate science, will testify. In June 2005 news reports, documents that Piltz obtained showed that a White House official with no scientific training was editing climate change science program reports in an attempt to confuse and obscure the perceived human impact on global warming.

“This new report shows that the problems I observed while working in the U.S. Climate Change Science Program Office were part of an overall pattern of Bush administration intervention that has undermined the credibility and integrity of federal climate science communication,” stated Piltz. “It shows that the problem has continued since I resigned from the program in March 2005 to protest this political interference.”

UCS distributed a survey to over 1,600 federal climate scientists, which asked for information about the state of federal climate research. Responses were received from 279 scientists. Results of the survey include:

* Forty-six percent of respondents perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words “climate change,” “global warming,” or other similar terms from a variety of communications.
* Forty-three percent of respondents reported they had perceived or personally experienced changes or edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their scientific findings.
* Forty-six percent of respondents perceived or personally experienced new or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work.
* Twenty-five percent of respondents perceived or personally experienced situations in which scientists have objected to, resigned from, or removed themselves from a project because of pressure to change scientific findings.
* Fifty-eight percent stated that they had personally experienced one or more incidents of interference over the past five years. The number of incidents totaled at least 435.

In contrast to this last point, scientists at the independent but federally-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, who are not federal employees, reported far fewer instances of interference (22 percent).

“The new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic,” said Dr. Francesca Grifo, Director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. “Tailoring scientific fact for political purposes has become a problem across many federal science agencies.”

The GAP investigation, consisting of 40 in-depth interviews with climate scientists and a review of 2,000 pages of agency documents, revealed that agency media policies often unnecessarily hinder scientists’ interaction with the media, rather than facilitate public dissemination of their research. For instance, Dr. Drew Shindell, an ozone specialist and NASA climatologist, submitted a press release to announce the publication of a paper on climate change. Press officers significantly watered down language that described his findings.

GAP Staff Attorney Tarek Maassarani conducted GAP’s side of the investigation. “Increasingly, scientists and support staff at the research facilities have been getting signals that climate science is a ‘sensitive’ topic,” states Maassarani. “This was used to justify obstructive agency policies that regulate the communication of scientific results, which led to self-censorship. Tragically, climate change is a tremendously important issue facing the public. Instead of burying everyone’s head in the sand, the government should be open to learning what the scientists have to tell us.”

Two-thirds of survey respondents (67 percent) said that today’s environment for federal government climate research is worse than it was five years ago. At NASA, three in five scientists reported decreased job satisfaction.

The report urges the federal government to ensure basic scientific freedoms and support scientists in sharing their research with the public, including respecting scientists’ constitutional right to speak about any subject in their private lives and allowing scientists to make ultimate decisions about the communication of their research.

GAP also warned that new media policies at federal agencies have loopholes. GAP Legal Director Tom Devine explained, “The new media policies have speech supportive of scientific freedom. But the fine print exposes the rhetoric as false. NASA’s media policy creates a legal trap that violates both the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Anti-Gag Statute.”

Last Congress, Government Reform Chairman Waxman (D-Ca.) and then-Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) sponsored legislation unanimously-approved by the Committee that would ban these illegal gag orders. “These agency ‘free speech’ reforms expose why Congress must act to restore genuine Whistleblower Protection Act rights without further delay,” stated Devine.

Rick Piltz added, “In order to make good decisions about how to deal with the challenge of global climate change, policy makers and the public need a free flow of scientific information. This challenge is far too important to allow political operatives to manipulate the communication between scientists and society.

A teleconference will take place following the hearing, at 1 p.m. EST today. Maassarani, Grifo, and Shindell will field questions. For information on that teleconference, contact UCS’s Emily Robinson at 202.331.5427 or GAP’s Dylan Blaylock at 202.408.0034 ext. 137.

Government Accountability Project & Union of Concerned Scientists

The Government Accountability Project was founded in 1977 and is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Formed in 1969, the Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world.

From Government Accountability Project

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