The ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has asked two federal offices to investigate media reports of agencies censoring climate change-related research and reports.
In letters last week, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., asked officials at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to investigate the role of official or unofficial guidance from the White House in the publication of scientific findings related to climate change.
In a letter to OSTP Director John Marburger, Lieberman cited recent media allegations of censorship at the Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and NOAA.
"The occurrence of allegations across four different government agencies raises the possibility that negative signals regarding scientific openness, particularly as regards climate change, might be traveling from a central source of authority to multiple executive branch departments," Lieberman wrote.
Lieberman, along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate government oversight committee, raised questions about censorship of scientists at NASA that led to the recent admission by the agency that a request to interview its top climate scientist had been improperly refused.
Ben Fallon, assistant to the director for legislative affairs at the White House science office, acknowledged receipt of Lieberman's letter and underlined that agencies set individual scientific communications policies.
"Dr. Marburger discussed the issue of communications policy with agency chief scientists shortly after the NASA incidents, and we continue to monitor agency practices," Fallon said. "At this time, we have not seen evidence that the situation requires the development of a mandatory one-size-fits-all policy governmentwide."
Fallon said the office regards a new communications policy developed by NASA in response to the incident as a best practice, and has disseminated it to other agencies.
That policy covers the release of "public information" to the news and information media, excluding materials such as scientific and technical reports and technical information presented at meetings or in professional journals.
The policy guarantees that scientists may speak freely with the press and public regarding their scientific findings, but says they must qualify conclusions not stemming directly from their research as their own personal views.
Dwayne Brown, a spokesman who focuses primarily on the agency's science directorate, which oversees most agency research, stressed that scientists are not required to qualify their conclusions as personal if they are linked to the scientist's research area. But the new policy also says the agency does not necessarily embrace the conclusions of any particular study.
Dean Acosta, the agency's press secretary, erred on the side of scientists qualifying their statements. "What I've been seeing is that many of the scientists have been saying, with my background and my research, my findings are this," he said. "Just because they work at NASA doesn't mean those findings are part of NASA policy."
In an unusual twist, a recent Supreme Court decision that limits the protections for government whistleblowers could help the case of scientists who express politically unpopular opinions under policies like NASA's. The court ruled in Garcetti v. Ceballos that government employees are not shielded from disciplinary action in job-related speech.
Joanne Royce, general counsel for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that addresses whistleblower issues, said two avenues could be open to protect scientists in such scenarios. First, she said, by virtue of being required to add the caveat that the views expressed were their own and not the agency's, their speech could avoid the job-related label that the justices concluded made the First Amendment inapplicable.
Second, Royce said, a comment by Justice David Souter may carve out an exception for speech related to scholarship and teaching, which could cover government scientists.
The second investigation that Lieberman requested into science communications is at NOAA, where he cited a Washington Post article alleging that climate change scientists have been muzzled in their public communications at the agency, as well as a January 2005 survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found NOAA scientists felt constrained in their speech.
The senator noted that NOAA does not have a formal policy on the public dissemination of scientific findings, and called on agency administrator Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher to institute such a policy.
Jordan St. John, NOAA's director of public affairs, said the agency does not filter scientific communications. "Our scientists, regardless of what capacity they're in, are able to communicate their findings as freely and openly as they wish," he said.
He said as a matter of standard operating procedure, his office acts as an intermediary with the press and tries to sit in on interviews with agency scientists. But he noted that the agency has about 12,500 employees and only 22 public affairs officers, and that to be involved with every interview would be "a physical impossibility."
Scientific papers and findings are issued through the laboratory where the individual works, St. John said. He indicated that the agency has not been considering making changes to its communications policies, noting that the policies also are governed by the Commerce Department, of which NOAA is a part.