Thomas Jefferson Center gives 2006 “Muzzle” award to Rep. Joe Barton

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On April 11, the 2006 Annual Jefferson Muzzle Awards were announced by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, Virginia. For 15 years, the Jefferson Muzzle Awards have “honored” those individuals and institutions that committed the more egregious or ridiculous acts of censorship in the past year.  Among the “winners” of the 2006 Jefferson Muzzles is U.S. Representative Joe Barton—“For taking action that appears to blur the line between scientific research and politics.”

The following text is taken from the Web site of the Thomas Jefferson Center:

About the Center

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression is a unique organization, devoted solely to the defense of free expression in all its forms. Located in Charlottesville,Virginia, the Center enjoys close ties to the University of Virginia, but is an autonomous, not-for-profit entity.  Its independence is assured by an outstanding Board of Trustees. The Board’s members reflect a broad spectrum of views, yet share a commitment to protecting the right of others to express views different from their own. Indeed, recognizing that threats to free expression come from all parts of the political spectrum, the Center maintains a nonpartisan stance in all that it does.

Since 1992, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has celebrated the birth and ideals of its namesake by calling attention to those who in the past year forgot or disregarded Mr. Jefferson’s admonition that freedom of speech ‘cannot be limited without being lost.’

Announced on or near April 13—the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson—the Jefferson Muzzles are awarded as a means to draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press and, at the same time, foster an appreciation for those tenets of the First Amendment.  An examination of previous Jefferson Muzzle recipients reveals that the disregard of First Amendment principles is not the byproduct of a particular political outlook but rather that threats to free expression come from all over the political spectrum.

Among the “winners” of the 2006 Jefferson Muzzles is…

U.S. Representative Joe Barton

The precedent your investigation sets is truly chilling. Are scientists now supposed to look over their shoulders to determine if their conclusions might prompt a Congressional inquiry no matter how legitimate their work? If Congress wants public policy to be informed by scientific research, then it has to allow that research to operate outside the political realm. Your inquiry seeks to erase that line between science and politics.

—U.S. Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Committee on Science

On June 23, 2005, U.S. Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), in his capacity as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent letters to three climate scientists as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Science Foundation questioning “the significance of methodological flaws and data errors” in their federally funded global warming study.  In addition to requesting a vast amount of data and information related to their research conducted over the past 15 years, the letter also demanded a significant amount of data irrelevant to that set of peer-reviewed studies. Barton’s inquiry was not prompted by careful review of peer-reviewed scientific literature or documents from leading scientific bodies like the National Academy of Sciences.  Rather, he cited a February 14, 2005 article in The Wall Street Journal as the source of his questions. 

In addition to being the subject of intense scientific research, global warming is also a hot political issue.  The conclusion that human activity contributes significantly to global warming is contrary to the interests of the coal and fuel industries—industries that Rep. Barton strongly supports.  While a spokesman for Rep. Barton claimed he was only “seeking scientific truth,” his methods indicate his concern was more political. His request for information regarding not only the scientists’ most recent work but also their life’s work indicates a search for a reason to discredit these particular scientists. 

Rep. Barton’s letter prompted a strong response from the scientific community.  Both The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science sent letters of concern to Rep. Barton, as have 20 leading climate scientists.  Perhaps more telling is a letter sent by fellow Republican House member Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Committee on Science, from which the following passage is taken:

It is certainly appropriate for Congress to try and understand scientific disputes that impinge on public policy.  There are many ways for us to do that, including hearings with a balanced set of witnesses, briefings with scientists, and requests for reviews by the national Academy of Sciences or other experts.

But you have taken a decidedly different approach—one that breaks with precedent and raises the specter of politicians opening investigations of any scientist who reaches a conclusion that makes the political elite uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, Rep. Barton’s letter would be perceived by many scientists as only the latest incident to blur the line between scientific inquiry and politics.  On February 18, 2004, 62 preeminent scientists including Nobel laureates, National Medal of Science recipients, former senior advisors to administrations of both parties, numerous members of the National Academy of Sciences, and other researchers issued a statement entitled Restoring Scientific Inquiry in Policy Making.  The statement charged the Bush administration with widespread “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions.”  In conjunction with the statement, the Union of Concerned Scientists released detailed documentation backing up the scientists charges in its report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.  These efforts may be having an effect: in the wake of NASA’s top climate scientists claim that his views were being censored by the agency’s press office, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin issued a new communications policy on March 30, 2006 that he called a “commitment to openness.”

This Muzzle should not be seen as taking a position on the issue of the effects of global warming or any other scientific dispute.  Rather, it is directed at actions that have the effect, whether intended or not, of chilling scientists from presenting the findings of their research without concern for, or fear of, political backlash.  For taking action that appears to blur the line between scientific research and politics, a 2006 Jefferson Muzzle is awarded to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton.

 

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