The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Professor Stripped of NOAA Funding for Advocacy

University of Alaska President Upholds Grant Removal and Office Eviction


A prominent University of Alaska marine scientist has lost his
federal grant and his office because he was an "advocate" for
environmental protection, according to a ruling released today by
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In its
decision, the university cited pressure from the grant agency, the
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, to silence the
scientist's public critique of oil industry Arctic development plans as
a key rationale for its decision.

Professor Rick
Steiner, a noted marine conservation specialist, has lost any further
NOAA Sea Grant funding and his office is being moved to place him under
closer university "supervision." The faculty union, United Academics,
had filed a grievance on Prof. Steiner's behalf protesting these
actions as a violation of university-guaranteed academic freedom and
other institutional policies.

On October 15, 2009, university counsel representing President Mark
Hamilton issued a final rejection of the grievance, contending that
"When a funding agency expresses concern in the context of some public
controversy" it is a legitimate basis for corrective action and
academic freedom was not infringed so long as Prof. Steiner remained
able to speak.

"President Hamilton seems to believe that his faculty still enjoys
academic freedom even while he permits imposition of penalties for
views simply because they conflict with the university's financial
backers - big oil," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "This
decision suggests that the University of Alaska is to academic freedom
what Burma is to open political debate."

"This decision undermines the University's credibility as a place where
ideas can be developed and discussed without fear of reprisal," said
Professor Steiner, noting that the University of Alaska depends upon
oil revenue for much of its support. "In my 30 years here, I have
never known of anyone in the University who experienced the slightest
problem from saying things supportive of industry."

While the ultimate decision to cut off Sea Grant funding was up to the
university, the decision makes it clear that complaints from NOAA
officials about Prof. Steiner's environmental advocacy spurred it to
rein him in. In a May 22, 2009 letter to PEER about the case,
Assistant Administrator Richard Spinrad reiterated the anti-advocacy
policy for grantees ("We do not take positions on issues of public
debate"), so as to not endanger "credibility" of researchers.
Nonetheless, he insisted "We do not 'gag' scientists."

"NOAA's stance is that by accepting one of its grants a scientist may
not say, for example, that clean water is healthier than polluted water
or that action by Shell or British Petroleum may create environmental
peril," said Ruch. PEER is preparing a formal rulemaking petition
later this month for submission to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco
seeking clarification of the Sea Grant no-advocacy guidance. "Receipt
of a federal grant should not be cause for suspending First Amendment
free expression rights or for cancelling the moral obligation of
scientists to speak up to protect our resources."

The Steiner case is being compared by faculty members to "the
Firecracker Boys" episode of 50 years ago at the University of Alaska.
In that case, university scientists working under federal grants were
fired after the funding agency complained of their public advocacy.
The scientists had publicized the likely environmental consequences of
allowing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to excavate a new harbor in
Arctic Alaska using thermonuclear bombs. Thirty years later, the
university recognized its error and awarded the scientists honorary
doctorate degrees.


Read the PEER letter to President Hamilton

See the decision issued on behalf of President Hamilton

Look at NOAA requests to silence Prof. Steiner

View NOAA defense of its Sea Grant ban on advocacy

Revisit the Firecracker Boys debacle

Trace the Steiner case chronology

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.