Muzzled under Bush, NASA Scientists Still Face Hurdles Publicizing Findings


As President Barack Obama meets in Copenhagen with world leaders to address climate change, a recent government report notes that, even after NASA took steps to address the political considerations that led to the suppression or downplaying of studies of climate science from 2004 to 2006, researchers at the space agency are still unclear about whether they can share the results of their taxpayer-funded studies with the public.

A survey conducted earlier this year found that fewer researchers have tried to disseminate their research results than in 2007, and more researchers have had their requests to disseminate denied, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Many NASA scientists are still unclear whether they may discuss or publicize their research. Fewer researchers believe they may discuss research results when the results differ from NASAs policy, the survey indicated. Specifically, 43 percent believe they may discuss such results, 19 percent believe they may not, and 38 percent were uncertain.

The December 3 GAO report was triggered after the space agencys Inspector General found last year that between 2004 and 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public, including barring researchers from speaking with the media and downgrading news releases, which often spur press pickup, to Web features, the IG report found. (One downgraded news release was fuzzily titled, Earth Gets a Warm Feeling All Over.)

It concluded that inappropriate political posturing was the proximate cause of at least some of these actions and that a political appointee was a central figure in the allegations of censorship and denial of media access.

In May 2007, after an internal review, a key management position in the communications office that had been filled with a political appointee was converted to a civil service position. Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman, said none of the four or so Bush-era appointees targeted by the report still work at the agency.

That same year NASAs media policy was revised to state plainly that employees may discuss their results and express personal views as long as they attribute such views to themselves and not the agency.

Jacobs said that in the past, the communications departments role as a go-between for different departments left it vulnerable to charges that if wording were changed as a consensus was formed, it represented intentional manipulation of the science. The communications officers arent part of that discussion anymore, and shouldnt be, he said. The report shows that now, some researchers further down the line needed to get a better grasp on the procedures for appealing decisions.

Other agencies researching politically-sensitive topics appear to have less trouble in managing the dissemination of research.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration instructs researchers to advise their immediate bosses before publishing, but it boils down to: youre free to talk to the media whenever you want, and you dont need a press person involved, said deputy director of communications Scott Smullen.

After being inundated with media requests for the agencys many researchers during a heavy hurricane season, the department realized we specifically did not want to become a clearing house in the press office, he added, and in 2007 the office worked with scientists to formulate and distribute a new policy.

Officials at various agencies emphasized that, at large agencies conducting various stages of research, there will at times be conflicting interpretationsas highlighted in the recent climate-gate controversywhether those conflicts are hashed out internally or in the public eye.

No one should be in the business of limiting access to information about taxpayer-funded research, said NASAs Jacobs, but theres an editorial process involved in distilling the results. Not all scientists are going to agree, he added, and just because you want to say something doesnt mean youre right.