AIP FYI #15: Boehlert Seeks Policy Clarification Regarding NASA Climate Scientists


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News Number 15: January 31, 2006

A report in last Sunday's New York Times about efforts by NASA officials to control the public pronouncements of James Hansen, director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (http://www.giss.nasa.gov/), has drawn considerable attention in the United States and abroad. It has also led to a letter from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin stating, "NASA is clearly doing something wrong, given the sense of intimidation felt by Dr. Hansen and others who work with him."

This is the second time in a little more than six months that Boehlert has raised serious questions about the treatment of climate researchers. Last July, Boehlert wrote to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) objecting to Barton's request to several prominent climate researchers for information on their data, computer codes, funding and related matters (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/112.html.)

Boehlert's January 30 letter to Griffin follows a page one story in the New York Times citing Hansen's description of the agency's public affairs staff's directive to review his future lectures, papers, and his content on Goddard's website and requests for interviews. In the Times article, Hansen said of these restrictions, "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public." The article quotes a NASA official that the desire for "coordination" was the reason for the restrictions. This controversy stems from Hansen's remarks in December that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced with existing technologies and the need for U.S. leadership, that were viewed by agency officials as constituting policy remarks.

Boehlert's letter to Griffin follows:

"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 science.

"Sincerely,

"Sherwood Boehlert Chairman"

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
The American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
http://www.aip.org/gov
(301) 209-3094

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