by Lauren Morello
E Daily reporter
Nearly a year after NASA climatologist James Hansen accused federal officials of censoring his views on global warming, scientific freedom is shaping up as a key issue for the next Congress.
Since Hansen aired his complaint in January, reports have surfaced of additional scientific censorship and suppression at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. EPA, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.
While a core group of lawmakers — largely Democrats — have called for independent investigations of such reports by the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general, their oversight efforts were limited by Republican leaders. But that is poised to change in the next Congress, when Democrats regain control of the House and the Senate, lawmakers and other experts said.
"Democrats are not going to sweep this issue under the rug," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "If the administration tries to censor scientists or sweep science under the rug, they’re not going to get away with it."
In September, Waxman released internal Commerce Department e-mail messages that suggest federal officials sought to prevent a NOAA scientist from speaking to journalists about a potential link between global warming and hurricanes.
Waxman is also the current ranking member and incoming chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Under the leadership of current Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), the committee has repeatedly sought information of the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s handling of key government reports on climate science (Greenwire, Sept. 21).
Waxman said he plans to continue pressing the Bush administration on reported scientific censorship in the next Congress, when he takes the reigns of the Government Reform panel. "We’ll continue to stay on top of it," he said. "If you don’t have the right facts, you can’t make good [policy] decisions."
"We’re expecting big things out of Waxman’s committee," said Jay Dyckman, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which tracks reported scientific censorship through its Knowledge Project. "One big-scale investigation would have a ripple effect. It’ll be very exciting these first six months" of the next Congress.
Separately, an incoming subcommittee chairman on the House Science Committee said he also plans to examine the censorship issue.
Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), currently the ranking member on the Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee, said he has not ruled out holding hearings.
Along with claims made by James Hansen at NASA, Wu has focused attention on an incident in which BLM temporarily cut off funding for Oregon State University graduate student Daniel Donato. Donato authored a study that questioned the benefits of post-fire salvage logging, a position counter to Bush administration forest policies (E&E Daily, Feb. 16).
"We have already made requests to GAO to look at the situation in the past," Wu said. "If hearings are necessary, we’ll do that."
But Wu also noted that he would "strongly prefer" to hear that Bush administration officials were not interfering in agency science. "Then we could focus on the windshield, and look forward," he said.
Wu’s plans seem likely to gain the approval of incoming Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who with current Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) has worked with NASA and NOAA officials to revise those agencies’ media policies to ensure scientists freedom to express their views publicly.
For their part, the heads of both agencies have repeatedly stated their support for scientific openness.
"Mr. Waxman and Mr. Gordon have both been on the case, even as ranking members in the current Congress," said Rick Piltz, director of the advocacy group Climate Science Watch. "I don’t think they’re going to be stonewalled without some kind of response" from the Bush administration.
Piltz also predicted that the House would see the introduction of legislation that would offer federal scientists improved whistleblower protections, akin to Waxman’s H.R. 839, which did not see committee action this Congress.
Censorship issues are also likely to gain traction in the Senate, experts said.
Already, the inspectors general of NASA and NOAA are investigating whether the Bush administration suppressed agency scientists’ global warming research, at the request of a largely Democratic group of 14 senators, including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (Greenwire, Nov. 2).
Also in that group is Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who will soon assume the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with the Environmental and Public Works Committee’s new Subcommittee on Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection.
With current Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lieberman has probed the Hansen situation at NASA. On his own, he has called for Marburger and NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher to report on allegations of censorship at EPA, NOAA, NASA and the Forest Service.
And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), poised to take over the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on climate change, named censorship issues as a top priority and said he is also considering hearings.
"I haven’t decided yet," Lautenberg told E&E Daily. "But I’ve been very interested in formalizing the discussion there. I think it’s outrageous. … There’s that old saying, ‘Truth in advertising,’ but what we need now is ‘Truth in science.’"
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) addressed the censorship issue yesterday, arguing that the Bush administration had broken the law by blocking the release of scientific reports on global warming.
"You know by law, NOAA is required to issue certain reports by a certain period of time," McCain said at an event organized by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "They’re simply not complying with the law. It’s incredible. When you get to that degree of obfuscation, then you get a little depressed" (E&ENews PM, Nov. 16).
Focus on climate change
Overall, the censorship issue is likely to benefit from the Democrats’ intent to aggressively pursue climate legislation, since many reported incidents of scientific suppression at federal agencies have involved climatologists, said National Coalition Against Censorship’s Dyckman.
Global warming "gets so much press. It’s so much in the public eye," Dyckman said. "Hopefully then the other issues at agencies like EPA will sort of piggyback onto that."
Echoing that position was Piltz, who called climate change "a monster of a challenge."
"Probably justifiably it grabs the center stage of people’s attention," Piltz said. "But it draws the attention to these other issues, too. It manifests the pattern of government interference with science and scientific communication."