NASA: We marginalized, mischaracterized climate change data

On September 29, 2006, 14 United States Senators cosigned a letter to the NASA Inspector General to request a formal investigation into allegations of “political interference” with the work of scientists at NASA.From: Investigative Summary Regarding Allegations that NASA Suppressed Climate Change Science and Denied Media Access to Dr. James E. Hansen, A NASA Scientist

On September 29, 2006, 14 United States Senators cosigned a letter to the NASA Inspector General to request a formal investigation into allegations of “political interference” with the work of scientists at NASA. In particular, the letter conveyed the Senators’ concern with apparent and “repeated instances of scientists . . . having publication of their research and access to the media blocked, solely based upon their views and conclusions regarding the reality and impacts of global warming.” The letter also identified areas of specific concern coupled with a request for this Office “to conduct a full and thorough investigation into the suppression of science and censorship of scientists at [NASA].”

Accordingly, the NASA Office of Inspector General conducted an administrative investigation to examine reports of alleged “political interference,” predominantly by senior NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs officials, with the work of NASA scientists pertaining to climate change—to include whether NASA inappropriately prevented one of its scientists, Dr. James E. Hansen, from speaking to the media in December 2005.

Our investigation found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public through those particular media over which the Office of Public Affairs had control (i.e., news releases and media access). We also concluded that the climate change editorial decisions were localized within the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs; we found no credible evidence suggesting that senior NASA or Administration officials directed the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs to minimize information relating to climate change. To the contrary, we found that once NASA leadership within the Office of the Administrator were made aware of the scope of the conflict between the Office of Public Affairs and scientists working on climate change, they aggressively implemented new policies with a view toward improved processes in editorial decision-making relating to scientific public affairs matters.

Further, it is our conclusion that the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs’ actions were inconsistent with the mandate and intent of NASA’s controlling legislation—the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 19581 (Space Act) and NASA’s implementing regulations—insomuch as they prevented “the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination” of information concerning NASA’s activities and results. While we could not substantiate that Administration officials employed outside NASA approved or disapproved or edited specific news releases, we do, however, find by a preponderance of the evidence2 that the claims of inappropriate political interference made by the climate change scientists and career Public Affairs Officers were more persuasive than the arguments of the senior Public Affairs officials that their actions were due to the volume and poor quality of the draft news releases. Although the scientific information alleged to be “suppressed” appeared to be otherwise available through a variety of Agency forums, we cannot reconcile that the Space Act would permit any purposeful obfuscation of scientific research by the Agency in any news dissemination forum as “appropriate” under the Act.

The supporting evidence detailed in this report reveals that climate change scientists and the majority of career Public Affairs Officers strongly believe that the alleged actions taken by senior NASA Headquarters Public Affairs officials intended to systemically portray NASA in a light most favorable to Administration policies at the expense of reporting unfiltered research results. Senior NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs officials (political appointees3) deny such actions, claiming that many of the proposed news releases were poorly written or too technical in nature for meaningful broad public dissemination.

With respect to NASA’s climate change research activities, we found no evidence indicating that NASA blocked or interfered with the actual research activities of its climate change scientists. In contrast to our findings associated with the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs, we found that NASA systematically distributed its technical climate change research throughout the scientific community and otherwise made it available through a variety of specialized forums, such as scientific journals, professional conferences, and public appearances by NASA scientists. Further, our recent audit of NASA’s formal process for releasing scientific and technical data resulting from research conducted by its employees and contractors found no evidence that the process was used as a means to inappropriately suppress the release of scientific or technical data at the four NASA Field Centers reviewed.4 Of the 287 authors surveyed at those Field Centers, none indicated that they had experienced or knew of someone who had experienced actual or perceived suppression of their research by NASA management.5 In short, the defects we found are associated with the manner of operation of the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs and are largely due to the actions of a few key senior employees of that office.

Regarding media access, our investigation confirmed that, contrary to its established procedures, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs declined to make one of NASA’s scientists, Dr. James E. Hansen, available for a radio interview with National Public Radio in December 2005. Our investigative efforts revealed that NASA’s decision was based, in part, on concern that Dr. Hansen would not limit his responses to scientific information but would instead entertain a discussion on policy issues. NASA maintains that the decision to deny media access to Dr. Hansen was unilaterally made by a junior Schedule C political appointee in the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs. The evidence, however, reflects that this appointee acted in accord with the overall management of climate change information at that time within the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs.

Regardless of the aforementioned Space Act standards, we otherwise found that the Agency mismanaged this activity insomuch as it occurred over a sustained period of time until senior management was eventually alerted by congressional staff and the media. That senior management did not know before then was emblematic of ineffective internal management controls such as a dispute resolution mechanism between contributing scientists and public affairs officials. This is especially true in that relations between NASA’s climate change science community and the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs had somehow deteriorated into acrimony, non-transparency, and fear that science was being politicized—attributes that are wholly inconsistent with effective and efficient Government. The investigation also uncovered that one of the underlying contributing factors of these problems may have, in fact, been in the very structure of the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs, where political appointees were placed in the seemingly contradictory position of ensuring the “widest practicable” dissemination of NASA research results that were arguably inconsistent with the Administration’s policies, such as the “Vision for Space Exploration.”

That said, the core issue of how our Government in general, and NASA in particular, continues to manage the important issue of climate change information is worthy of careful consideration by both the Executive and Legislative branches of Government—and is an issue that the NASA Office of Inspector General will continue to monitor from an Agency oversight perspective.

We provided a draft of this Investigative Summary to the NASA Administrator on March 6, 2008, for the purpose of soliciting the Agency’s comments. The Agency’s comments (Appendix D) were received on April 18, 2008. Our evaluation of those comments is also provided (Appendix E).

Full report summary:

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