House Science Committee chairs question 11 federal agencies about science media openness policies

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Following their letter last Friday to the Secretary of the Interior, House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) sent letters on March 15 to the Administrators of eleven federal agencies about their science media policies. The Chairmen’s earlier letter to Interior sought an explanation of such practices in the wake of reports that federal scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been barred from discussing “climate change, polar bears and sea ice.” “Although we were assured that this Administration’s policies on scientific openness had been changed, it appears that not all agencies got the message,” said Chairman Miller.

Committee on Science, Space and Technology
U.S. House of Representatives

Press Release
March 15, 2007

Chairmen Request Further Information on Science Media Policies

(Washington, DC) Following their letter last Friday to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, House Committee on Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) today sent letters to the Administrators of eleven federal agencies inquiring about their science media policies.

The Chairmen’s letter to Interior sought an explanation of such practices in the wake of reports that federal scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been barred from discussing “climate change, polar bears and sea ice.”

“There have been too many stories about how federal scientists find their voices muzzled, or their statements altered to insure that inconvenient truths don’t slip out,” said Chairman Gordon. “Just yesterday, the House overwhelming passed whistleblower protections to cover federal scientists. After the reports last week from the USFWS, the Committee simply wants to understand whether political figures with a political agenda may have been smothering the search for scientific truth to serve a public relations directive.”

The recipients of today’s letters include the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Labor and Transportation, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Directors of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. All are members of the National Science and Technology Council.

Chairman Miller added, “Science only progresses when there is an honest, informed public debate. Any policies that have muzzled government scientists have also crippled the ability of the public to understand how the world around us is changing. When there isn’t an honest discussion, we can’t make an informed choice about policies for the future.”

The memos leaked from the USFWS last week showed that scientists were being muzzled from discussing climate change at an upcoming international meeting. For over a year, reports like this one have surfaced concerning political interference with federal scientists and their contacts with the media.

In 2005, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) engaged in an effort to only allow public comment from scientists who would cast doubt on the connection between global warming and the intensity or frequency of hurricanes in the wake of Katrina. In early 2006, noted climate scientist Dr. James Hansen went public with charges that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was trying to muzzle him.

In the wake of the Hansen story, NASA adopted a new media policy that was designed to provide some protections to scientists enabling them to talk about their work. Following the release of that new policy, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Dr. John Marburger, wrote to all the federal agencies conducting science and shared a copy of the NASA policy, encouraging them to review their rules and consider adopting like standards as needed.

“Although we were assured that this Administration’s policies on scientific openness had been changed, it appears that not all agencies got the message,” said Chairman Miller.

The Chairmen’s letters to the agencies today ask for all records regarding the receipt and distribution of Dr. Marburger’s letter forwarding the NASA media policy, and all internal communications surrounding consideration of that request. In addition, the Chairmen asked for information regarding when each agency adopted its existing media policy regarding scientific information, when it was last modified and whether the existing media policy is under review.

Link here to a copy of one of the agency letters the Chairmen sent today.

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