By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith has revived his misguided crusade against climate change scientists who work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan dated February 22, obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this week, the chairman demands reams of deliberative materials among scientists related to their work. UCS has previously explained the dangerous precedent that compliance with such a subpoena would set.
My colleague Andrew Rosenberg today replied to the chairman’s letter, again urging him to drop the investigation. “Political meddling in the process of scientific research will not improve our understanding of the global climate, and harms not only that research but also our nation and our nation’s scientific enterprise,” he wrote. “Congressional oversight should prevent such meddling, not exacerbate it.”
At the end of 2016, after voicing objection to a NOAA peer-reviewed climate change study published in Science, Chairman Smith subpoenaed NOAA for years of scientists’ emails, draft papers, peer review comments, and more related to the study of surface temperature records. The subpoena came even though NOAA staff had provided several briefings for committee staff and the chairman had already received all of the data and methodology related to the study in question.
Seven scientific societies expressed “grave concern” about the chairman’s actions, stating that “scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial.” Hundreds of scientists wrote in support of NOAA’s efforts to protect its scientists. The chairman subsequently walked back his request, saying that he was only really interested in communication among political appointees.
But Chairman Smith appears not to have heard the mainstream scientists. Instead, he refers to a letter led by individuals who have long been associated with the climate denial movement. His new demands are for records from several new areas of the agency, including the chief scientist’s office and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services Office, and asks for any records that include the following terms:
“Karl,” “buoy,” “ship,” “Night Marine Air Temperature,” “temperature,” “climate,” “change,” “Paris,” “U.N.” “United Nations,” “clean power plan,” “regulations,” “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” “President,” “Obama,” “White House,” and “Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).”
Yes, he wants NOAA to search for “change” and “temperature.” This would likely require NOAA staff to go through hundreds of thousands of documents, including a lot of material where disclosure could compromise the scientific process. Dr. Rosenberg urged NOAA to hold firm:
“The use of a sledgehammer of a congressional subpoena to cast so wide a net is unprecedented and unjustified; at the same time it harasses and distracts scientists who are just doing their jobs… To protect the independence of its scientists, we believe that NOAA is justified in resisting this newest demand. Further, it is our hope that you will decide to stop this burdensome and unwarranted fishing expedition by rescinding your latest inquiry, as well as withdrawing your original subpoena.”
Meanwhile, the process of science is playing out. Yesterday, several prominent scientists published a commentary in Nature Climate that had a different take on the data used in the Karl study. And one of those scientists, Michael Mann, wanted the public to know that their new interpretation does not cast aspersions on the Karl study:
It seems like that this is what should be happening: a vigorous debate about the science by scientists and experts who are best positioned to appreciate the nuances of the latest research.