We may not be getting the whole story about climate research from our government.New federal guidelines on what scientists say or write about their research place severe limits, perhaps unconstitutional ones, on their ability to talk about climate change.
Those policies affect scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, both of which have facilities at the Commerce Department's South Broadway complex in Boulder.
For political reasons, it appears, the Bush administration has decided to censor information that indicates global warming may be caused by human beings.
Commerce's new media policy faces criticism from advocacy groups that argue it claims to allow scientific openness but in fact will chill scientists' speech and writings. The policy, unveiled last month, affects public communications from the agencies, effective in May. It updates three existing policies dating back to the 1980s.
Two watchdog groups, the Government Accountability Project and the Union of Concerned Scientists, have called the new policy "unconstitutional and unnecessarily overbroad."
It requires that scientists:
Give two weeks' notice of their public communications "of interest" made in an unofficial capacity.
Refrain from discussing their personal views in interviews conducted on government time, defined as "personal opinions that go beyond scientific conclusions based on fundamental research related to their jobs."
Refrain from answering interview questions during the workday that stray from their primary area of research.
The two groups say the policy conflicts with whistleblower protection laws and free speech provisions, does not guarantee scientists the right of a final review for materials to be issued in their name, and does not incorporate sufficient transparency or accountability in employees' right to appeal department decisions about their communications.
Why should we care? Two examples:
Government scientists working on consideration of listing polar bears as an endangered species say they have been prohibited from speaking about the effects of climate change on the bears while they are in the Arctic region, and that reports they have prepared have later been "significantly altered" before being released.
The bears may be endangered because the sea ice they depend on is disappearing, according to the web site OMBwatch.org. But reporting connected with listing them as endangered omits mentioning any link between human activity and rising temperatures in the Arctic.
And U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, has held two hearings this year of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he chairs, on political interference with science.
In March he said of former oil industry lobbyist Philip Cooney, appointed as chief of staff at the Council of Environmental Quality: "Mr. Cooney and his staff made hundreds of separate edits to the government's 'strategic plan' for climate-change research. These changes injected doubt in place of certainty, minimized the dangers of climate change and diminished the human role in causing the planet to warm."
And while President Bush said in 2001, "My administration's climate-change policy will be science-based," there is mounting evidence that government scientists' judgments are circumscribed by politics.
All this is to say that the very people trying to get at the roots of climate change and why it's happening - a phenomenon obvious all over the world in recent years - are in some instances being censored and prevented from speaking freely about the results of their research.
Political manipulation or censorship of research is neither science-based nor appropriate. It will stand in the way as the world grapples with climate change. Science and scientists deserve our respect and our attention. They must not be silenced for political reasons.
Susan Deans, for the editorial board E.W. Scripps Co.
© 2006 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC