Hearings this week, held by the new Democratic chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Henry Waxman, have documented long-standing charges that the White House routinely injects political considerations into the work of federal science agencies in an attempt to censor government scientists and mislead the public about the extent of the danger posed by global warming.  

The testimony before Waxman's committee also reveals the threat that the administration's machinations pose to constitutional principles.   By disrupting the free flow of information in the scientific arena, the government has endangered the "marketplace of ideas" and threatens not only our constitutional rights to freedom of speech, thought and inquiry, but also the decision and policy-making processes that depend on reliable and valid scientific data and knowledge.   Wise public policy decisions depend upon vigorous, open, and evidence-based discussion and debate coupled with a clear understanding of the difference between accepted scientific knowledge on one hand and ideology and political or economic advantage on the other.

At the center of the hearings is a report recently issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project entitled Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science.   The report provides a disturbing look at the manifold ways the administration has stifled research and discussion about global warming.   Here are some of its findings, taken from interviews with agency scientists and FOIA documents:

  • One agency scientist, whose research illustrates a possible connection between hurricanes and global warming, was repeatedly barred from speaking to the media.   Press inquiries on the subject were routed to another scientist whose views more closely matched official administration policy.
  • Government scientists routinely encounter difficulty in obtaining approval for official press releases that highlight research into the causes and consequences of global warming.
  • Scientists report that public affairs officers are sometimes present at or listen in on interviews between certain scientists and the media.
  • Both scientists and journalists report that restrictive media policies and practices have had the effect of slowing down the process by which interview requests are approved.   As a result, the number of contacts between government scientists and the news media has been greatly reduced. [Report, p. 3].

Public policy that best advances the public interest must rely on the most accurate data and research available.   As a result of this suppression, the public fails to receive accurate information on issues that affect their health and welfare.   Moreover, censorship severely curtails the First Amendment rights of individual scientists and creates a "chilled" environment that both stifles research and requests for funding on issues perceived as disfavored by the administration.  

NCAC is working with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Government Accountability Project, and other groups concerned about scientific integrity, because we believe that censorship of government scientists threatens not just science integrity but also constitutional principles.   For a dramatic example of the constitutional and policy implications of censoring science, see our article in the Legal Times describing a case in which the Department of Justice asserted that the EPA is not required to curb carbon dioxide emissions – a major component of heat trapping gases – because of scientific uncertainty about whether the climate is changing and what is causing it.