The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched into its oversight role Tuesday with a hearing on potential administration interference in communicating the results of federal scientific work.
The hearing - the committee's first in this session of Congress -- focused largely on a bipartisan investigation into allegations that the White House Council on Environmental Quality has suppressed the findings of government climate scientists. Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Tom Davis, R-Va., now the chairman and ranking member respectively, initiated the review during the last Congress.
The investigation focused in part on records surrounding a 2003 Environmental Protection Agency report, and how the draft report was edited by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. The committee sought those materials in July 2006 under federal sunshine laws, Waxman said. Most records have not been provided to the committee, he said, but staffers were given the chance to view some of the materials without retaining copies.
Waxman reported that according to staffers' notes, the White House made numerous, significant edits to the EPA document. Officials from the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy suggested that a discussion of human health and ecological impacts of climate change be deleted, he said, and OMB officials urged that EPA add "balance" to the climate section, prompting that "global climate change has beneficial effects as well as adverse impacts."
Phillip Cooney, who was chief of staff at the president's Council on Environmental Quality when the report was prepared and previously had been a petroleum lobbyist, softened language on the consequences of climate change, the staffers told Waxman, and deleted a reference to a National Research Council finding that human activities are causing global temperatures to rise.
EPA officials eventually determined that they had three options on how to handle the White House edits, according to committee staffers. First, EPA could accept all the edits and risk facing "severe criticism from the science and environmental community for poorly representing the science." Officials noted that the edited version of the report "provide[d] specific text to attack" and could have resulted in prolonged criticism of the agency.
The second option was to cut the climate change section out of the report, which would have exposed the agency to criticism as well. Third, they said, the administrator could have fought the White House direction that no further changes would be considered and tried to find compromise language.
Officials ultimately decided to take the second path, removing the climate change discussion entirely, Waxman said. No administration officials testified at the hearing.
During the hearing, lawmakers also focused on testimony by Drew Shindell, a climate researcher with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies who said political interference had hindered the communication of his findings, and Rick Piltz, a former senior associate with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, who resigned in protest in 2005 after 10 years working on government climate change research.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said the political censorship of scientific results represented a waste of taxpayer dollars. "We as a nation invest millions of dollars every year in science … and that's why it's essential" that taxpayers have full access to the results of that research, he said.
Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, presented the results of a survey of 1,630 top climate scientists at seven agencies responsible for most federal climate research: NASA; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; EPA; the Energy, Defense and Agriculture departments; and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Of the 279 federal scientists who responded, 73 percent said they perceived inappropriate interference with climate science research in the past five years, while 58 percent said they had personally experienced such interference and 43 percent said they perceived or had experienced changes to documents that altered the meaning of scientific findings.
Numerous lawmakers expressed concern over the data and emphasized that scientific research should be independent of political influences.
Some also extended their concern to non-climate issues. Van Hollen, who represents the district where the National Institutes of Health is located, said a researcher with the National Institute of Mental Health had been denied permission to testify at a hearing shortly before it was held. Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., raised concerns that Food and Drug Administration scientists had been subject to interference based on commercial interests in the products being regulated.
The Union of Concerned Scientists issued its survey results as part of a report, prepared along with the Government Accountability Project watchdog group, on political interference in federal climate science. The report also included a model media policy, based partly on policies published by NASA and NOAA and designed to alleviate concerns about censorship and scientific suppression.
The model policy would assure scientists and other employees the right to speak in a personal capacity so long as they clearly indicate that they are not representing the agency, and make "reasonable use of agency time and resources … comparable with what would be allowed on other personal matters."
The model policy also would allow staff to meet with the media without a public affairs officer present, as long as the meeting is later described to appropriate officials, and would allow scientists to review materials developed by public affairs officials to ensure scientific accuracy.