This report, which presents and synthesizes the findings of a year-long investigation to determine the extent of political interference at federal climate science agencies, demonstrates how policies and practices have increasingly restricted the flow of scientific information emerging from publicly-funded climate change research. This has affected the media’s ability to report on the science, public officials’ capacity to respond with appropriate policies, and the public’s grasp of an environmental issue with profound consequences for our future.
Conducted by the Government Accountability Project, the investigation incorporated dozens of interviews; a review of thousands of Freedom of Information Act disclosures, internal documents, and public records; and a comprehensive search of news archives.1 Although the investigation focused heavily on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it also included the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Agriculture, and the Climate Change Science Program.
A perception of inappropriate political interference is widespread among employees of the federal climate science agencies and programs, as well as among journalists from national, mainstream outlets who cover their research. This perception is substantiated by evidence from inside sources, scientists’ personal testimonies, journalists, and Freedom of Information Act disclosures.
The investigation found no incidents of direct interference with climate change research. Instead, unduly restrictive policies and practices were located largely in the communication of “sensitive” scientific information to the media, the public, and Congress. In this context, “sensitive scientific information” is meant to signify that science which does not support existing policy positions or objectives in research dealing with the effects of climate change or greenhouse gases on hurricanes, sea levels, Arctic ice loss, marine life, and human society.
Interference with media communications includes delaying, monitoring, screening, and denying interviews, as well as delay, denial, and inappropriate editing of press releases. Interference with the public and Congress includes inappropriate editing, delay, and suppression of reports and other printed and online material. These restrictive communication policies and practices are largely characterized by internal inconsistencies, ambiguity, and a lack of transparency. In turn, they send chilling signals to federal employees, including scientists and public affairs officers, that reinforce the suppression of “sensitive” information.There is a clear trend toward increasingly restrictive policies and practices unsupported by any official justification from the agencies and programs. Why are these restrictions becoming more pervasive than ever before? The evidence suggests that incidents of interference are often top-down reactions to science that has negative policy or public relations implications for the administration. Attempts to impose such restrictions are sometimes unsuccessful and even counter-productive; how frequently they succeed unreported, however, cannot be quantified. Although restrictive practices tend to target the small number of federal employees working with sensitive information, the overbroad application of restrictive policies and their chilling effect impact a wide range of personnel.
Directives and signals from executive offices such as the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy are channeled through political appointees and younger politically-aligned career civil servants at lower-level press and policy offices. These communications largely take place off the record, frequently deviating from written policy guidelines and involving individuals with few scientific qualifications. Whereas low-level agency and program support staff are typically sympathetic to the scientists and their science, as one scientist noted, “the closer you get to Washington, the more hostile they are to the science.” Despite supportive rhetoric, senior managers who are aware of the perception and even the incidents of interference largely fail to address them. To the contrary, they may be conforming to pressures from above to downplay politically-inconvenient science.
Whether these restrictive communication policies and practices have precipitated overt and, often, well-publicized incidents or have acted by more subtle processes, their effect has been to misrepresent and under-represent the taxpayer-funded scientific knowledge generated by federal climate science agencies and programs. In some cases, the policies and practices constitute constitutional and statutory infringements of the federal climate science employees’ free speech and whistleblower rights. In most cases, the policies and practices undermine the government’s inherent obligation to disseminate the results of publicly-funded research.
Increased congressional and media attention on the political suppression of climate science has often resulted in statements of commitment to scientific openness and a loosening of communication policies and their application. This pressure has led to actual or anticipated reforms, as well as improved morale, at NASA and NOAA, though institutional problems and policy weaknesses remain. Even in rhetoric, this reform movement has largely missed ongoing problems at EPA and CCSP.
The Government Accountability Project recommends the executive branch and all federal agencies that support climate change research:
- Implement a clear and transparent “notice and recap” media policy in which only a prior notification to public affairs and a subsequent follow-up are required. Correspondingly, eliminate mandatory pre-approval for media contacts, selective routing of media requests, drafting of anticipated questions and answers by scientists prior to interviews, and monitoring of media communications.
- Develop a transparent communications policy at the Climate Change Science Program and streamline the approval process for its products and communications.
- Reaffirm and educate federal employees about their right to speak on any subject so long as they make clear that they are expressing their personal views and do not use government time and resources – with the important proviso that no restrictions apply when federal employees are exercising their whistleblower rights to disclose unclassified information that is reasonably believed to evidence illegality, gross waste, gross mismanagement, abuse of power, or substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
- Bring media policies into compliance with the Anti-Gag Statute, Whistleblower Protection Act, and related provisions, and provide clear regulations as to what constitutes properly classified, sensitive, or restricted information.
- Ensure the timely and pro-active coordination of press releases and media contacts so as to promote rather than limit the flow of information.
- Ensure that content editing and scientific quality control remain with qualified scientists and the peer-review process.
- Reaffirm and educate federal employees on their right to review any final draft that is to be published under their name or that substantially references their research.
- Establish accountability procedures that increase transparency and provide for internal reporting of undue interference with science.
- Investigate and correct inappropriate policies, practices, and incidents such as those described in this report.
The Government Accountability Project recommends that Congress:
- Enact legislation that protects federal free speech and whistleblower rights, with particular reference to employees of federal science agencies.
- Ensure that objective and independent science is the basis for policymaking.
- Strengthen its essential oversight functions with regard to the integrity of communications about scientific research.Reaffirm and educate federal employees about their right to speak on any subject so long as they make clear that they are expressing their personal views and do not.
Download the entire report here.