Scientists and organizations looking to assure integrity in research and dissemination of findings scored a victory this spring when top NASA climate scientist James E. Hansen's claim of censorship was affirmed by a NASA Inspector General report.
Hansen had blown the whistle on the space agency's public affairs office in March 2006 when he said he was threatened with "dire consequences" if he continued to call for prompt action to limit gases linked to global warming.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has made exposing the doctoring of documents and intimidation of scientists a cause, as we reported earlier. Some 15,000 scientists, including 52 Nobel laureates, have signed the organization's statement on Scientific Freedom and the Public Good.
Hansen's stand emboldened other NASA scientists at that time. Several came forward to say that political appointees within the agency sought to advance President Bush's "vision" for returning to the moon and eventually traveling to Mars by tying such missions to unrelated research findings. Research of a link between wind patterns and warming of the Indian Ocean was one example of a study wherein the researcher was asked to find a moon or Mars connection.
Fourteen U.S. senators asked for the IG probe after hearing of the complaints about censorship and manipulation of research findings.
The NASA report, released in early June, concluded that from 2004 to 2006, its public affairs office "managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public." It also concluded that the public affairs office denied media access to Hansen "due, in part, to that office's concern that Dr. Hansen would not limit his statements to science but would, instead, entertain a policy discussion on the issue of climate change."
This flew in the face of NASA's implementing regulations, the report noted, which call for the "widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning NASA's activities and results."
NASA's controlling legislation gives scientists in that agency more protection than many others. It's clear that the mandate and intent of the legislation that spawned it -the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 - give some teeth to the idea of scientific freedom.
The Environmental Protection Agency, according to the UCS, isn't faring so well.
A recent investigation of EPA by the organization found that 889 of nearly 1,600 staff scientists reported that they experienced political interference in their work over the last five years.