The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Feb 14, 2006

The Struggle Continues

For the past week I’ve been preoccupied with the NASA censorship scandal, causing me to miss several stories I wanted to cover. There’s no point to living in the past, but I did want to mention three stories that are particularly relevant, all three providing evidence that even as an obstacle to scientific progress was being removed, the struggle against political interference in the environmental sciences continues and will require continued vigilance.

First in the lineup is an week-old story from the 7 February edition of The Oregonian that I originally came across at A Change in the Wind. I was particularly interested in this case because the authorities did not even seem to try to hide the fact that they were retaliating against scientists for publishing data they didn’t like. The Oregonian reports:
The federal government has abruptly suspended funding for Oregon State University research that concluded federally sponsored logging after the 2002 Biscuit fire in southwest Oregon set back the recovery of forests.

The action came after a team of scientists from OSU and the U.S. Forest Service published their results last month in Science, the nation's leading scientific journal.

It escalated the controversy surrounding the findings, which undercut Bush administration-backed arguments for logging after wildfires. The research, led by a 29-year-old graduate student, already had come under attack within OSU's College of Forestry by professors who contend that logging and replanting speed recovery of burned forests.

In this case, there truly might be a scientific controversy here, since it is fairly obvious that allowing dead vegetation to build up can provide more fuel for forest fires. Fortunately, the scientific community has built in devices to address controversial findings, primarily through peer review—where scientists judge the validity of other scientists’ work to determine whether or not it will be published—and independent verification—where there is an unstated assumption that results can at any moment be proven wrong by other scientists being unable to replicate them.

In this case, though, the federal government has preempted the debate by freezing the funding of the Oregon State University researchers who published the findings. The controversy here stems from the fact that the Science paper mentioned a specific piece of logging legislation, the Walden bill. This is a valid complaint, since such a mention could violate the terms of their funding, and action could be appropriate, especially if the authors had the intention of violating their contract. However, that does not seem to be the case:
Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science and former president of Stanford University, said the federal move was a "considerable political escalation," coming after the attempt by OSU professors to derail publication of the paper.

He said the mention of the Walden bill was the journal's mistake. The authors of the research report had asked journal editors to remove the mention, but they inadvertently did not….

…Kennedy, the editor of Science, said he could not see how Donato's paper could be seen as trying to influence legislation. The research findings might be influential, he said, but to bar them "would cripple anyone from ever working on a science problem with a policy impact."

I especially like Kennedy's last point since the results of work on a variety of research topics could influence politics. Especially since the mention of the Walden bill was an accidental oversight on the part of Science, the federal response is extreme and uncalled-for, and it is clear retribution for publishing results unfavorable to federal policy. We could learn something here from traditional conservatives and their constant calls for the government to keep its hands out of the mix, since the scientific community can handle this issue much better.

A few days later, on 10 February, The Washington Post reported that President Bush hasn’t put his money where his mouth is when it comes to honoring an earlier commitment to fully funding environmental and conservation projects:
Grants to state and local governments for land and water conservation would be cut 40 percent, and money for the Environmental Protection Agency's network of libraries for scientists would be slashed severely under President Bush's proposed budget….

…Early in his presidency, Bush called for restoring the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to the full $900 million authorized by Congress. Last year, it was approved at $142 million. For 2007, he wants just $85 million in grants for creating and preserving non-federal parks, forest land and wildlife refuges, a 40 percent cut.

"This is the most troubling budget we've seen from this White House," said Heather Taylor, deputy legislative director for Natural Resources Defense Council.

The proposal sent to Congress this week would trim EPA's budget by nearly 5 percent, down to $7.2 billion, and the Interior Department's budget by 2.4 percent, to $9.1 billion.

Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., said it shows the environment isn't a Bush administration priority. "We cannot allow this dangerous trend to continue," said Jeffords, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

While starving the EPA of funding isn’t as egregious as the outright censorship of scientists at NASA, the Bush administration apparently lived up to its reputation in that department as well this week. On 11 February, The Washington Post reported that James Hansen, the scientist who recently spoke out against being silenced by the Bush appointee George Deutsch at NASA, now alleges similar censorship is occurring at another federal administration, NOAA:
James E. Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who sparked an uproar last month by accusing the Bush administration of keeping scientific information from reaching the public, said Friday that officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are also muzzling researchers who study global warming.

Hansen, speaking in a panel discussion about science and the environment before a packed audience at the New School university, said that while he hopes his own agency will soon adopt a more open policy, NOAA insists on having "a minder" monitor its scientists when they discuss their findings with journalists….

…After the panel discussion -- which also featured Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, American Enterprise Institute fellow Steven Hayward and Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich -- Hansen said he knows of NOAA scientists who are chafing at the administration's restrictions but are afraid to speak out.

New School President Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, said he invited Hansen to speak because he was "very concerned" about what he called the administration's efforts to steer the debate over global warming: "It's not only inappropriate; it stifles the very debate we're trying to have today, and that we need to have on this issue."

Kerrey said of Hansen, "He's not a radical; he's a scientist who's studied the issue. Let the disagreement occur without stifling one side of the argument."

In a good commentary on the piece, B and B notes that this type of interference has been going on for some time:
Obviously, I do not know what lies behind Hansen's allegations. But last August, Chris Mooney wrote two posts about a what he believed was a mysterious lack of press releases from NOAA for "cutting edge" climate research that they were funding.

Not long after that, and about a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Raw Story reported that NOAA, which is the parent agency of the National Weather Service, was insisting that all media contact by employees be pre-approved.

In case you needed any more evidence that the George Deutsch scandal at NASA wasn’t an isolated incident, then here you go. Based on the feedback I’ve received, though, not many people seem to harbor that illusion. I’m optimistic that in the wake of the NASA incident, outright censorship of science will be more difficult, and I’m encouraged to see so many scientists speaking out—something scientists are generally very hesitant to do. However, political interference in science is nothing new (remember Galileo?), and everyone in the scientific community will need to remain vigilant to minimize the damage of these affronts, which have been particularly frequent under the current administration.


  • Congrats on making TIME's Blogwatch for this week...

    "So-called citizen journalists bagged another trophy last week when The Scientific Activist discovered that NASA public-affairs aide George Deutsch -- accused of trying to muzzle agency scientists on the issue of global warming -- had never graduated from Texas A&M University, a detail the 24-year-old presidential appointee later explained away by saying his resume` had been written in anticipation of a degree. After he resigned, This Blog Title For Sale praised the sleuthing as "proof that blog journalism is real." (Feb. 20, 2006 issue)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Feb 15, 02:14:00 AM  

  • Were there NOAA "minders" during other administrations?

    By Blogger Sarabeth, at Wed Feb 15, 03:31:00 AM  

  • Thanks for the link to B and B.

    As for sarabeth's question, I cannot answer definitively myself, but the answer appears to be no.

    Chris Mooney noticed that NOAA used to publicize its climate-related research a lot more heavily in the Clinton days, and the Raw Story article I found from last fall strongly suggests that the new policy of forcing pre-approval of all media contact was quite new.

    Of course, it Reagan or Bush I did anything similar, I do not know. Not that would make the current situation any better.

    Of course, back then, the urgency and scientific case for global warming were substantially different than they are today.

    By Blogger P.M.Bryant, at Wed Feb 15, 03:12:00 PM  

  • Excellent reporting, Nick. You've done the country and the world an immeasurable service. Politics has its place, but it doesn't belong anywhere near the realm of objective truth cherished by scientists.

    By Anonymous , at Wed Feb 15, 07:26:00 PM  

  • I thought this article might be of interest to you and your readers:

    "EPA CONTINUES TO SCREEN ALL INTERVIEWS WITH SCIENTISTS — EPA Will Not Match “Open Science” Policies Adopted at NASA and NOAA"

    via American Library Association's Federal Information Policy watchdogs.

    Keep up the great work. Cheers,

    By Blogger Paul Lagasse, at Wed Feb 15, 09:03:00 PM  

  • I suspect you and your readership do not want to keep harping on the Bush administration's apparent attack on science, because it may be construed as us being irrationally biased against them, but I just wanted to draw attention to this article

    Just goes to show that censorship as well as depriving funds seems to be this administration's two main forms of leverage against the scientific community. It's very alarming where are society is headed.

    By Anonymous Pierre, at Thu Feb 16, 12:15:00 AM  

  • The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
    -1984, George Orwell

    It's starting, unbelievably. Now it is up to us proles, us non-party-members to kick up a fuss until we are silenced by the Miniluv.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 16, 04:59:00 PM  

  • Might already be too late. Big Brother is watching.

    By Anonymous Pierre, at Sat Feb 18, 06:08:00 AM  

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