NASA admits mistake in blocking access to scientist

Denial of interview with top climate scientist ran against agency policy, official says in letter to lawmakers.

NASA recently acknowledged it made a mistake in blocking news media access to its top climate scientist.

"An internal inquiry has revealed that one recent media request to interview Dr. James Hansen, of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was inappropriately declined," wrote Brian Chase, NASA's assistant administrator for legislative affairs, in June 6 letters to Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

Collins is the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and Lieberman is the ranking member. In the letter, Chase said preventing Hansen from being interviewed earlier this year was "contrary to NASA policy" and reiterated the agency's commitment to "fully and transparently communicate" with the public. He also said several allegations of inappropriate editing of scientific materials, if true, are "unacceptable." Collins and Lieberman raised concerns about NASA's alleged censorship of scientific views in February, after media reports that Hansen, chief of the New York-based Goddard Institute, was muzzled because his opinions on global warming differ from those of the Bush administration.

The senators issued a joint statement Friday.

"We rely on NASA and other federally funded research to make critical public policy decisions affecting our health and our environment," Collins said. "Concerted efforts to incorrectly portray scientific data and findings are unacceptable. While this incident is disturbing, I am pleased that NASA is taking steps to prevent similar incidences in the future."

Lieberman noted that charges of suppressing science have arisen recently at four federal agencies -- NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Forest Service. "It is time for the White House to stop suppressing important climate change information that the public has a right to know and needs to know," he said.

Hansen could not be reached for comment.

After the Hansen incident, NASA revised its policy on releasing information to the news media. The policy, made public March 30, clarifies what NASA public affairs officers may and may not do. It also guarantees that NASA scientists may communicate their conclusions to the media, but requires them to distinguish clearly between scientific results and their own opinions.