Is This Congressman's Oversight An Effort To Hobble Climate Science?

Dec 7, 2015
Originally published on December 31, 2015 12:13 pm

About 600 scientists and engineers, including former employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have signed on to letters urging the head of that agency, Kathryn Sullivan, to push back against political interference in science.

For months, Sullivan has been tangling with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, as he investigates a climate change study done by NOAA scientists.

That study, published earlier this year in the journal Science, cast doubt on what some have called a global warming hiatus — the idea that global warming has slowed in the past two decades.

Smith says his actions are a legitimate part of his oversight duties, but scientists call it harassment.

"Please continue to resist this dangerous abuse of congressional oversight power," the scientists and engineers write to Sullivan in a letter they sent to her Monday. "We urge you to continue to stand firm against these bullying tactics in order to protect NOAA scientists' ability to pursue research and publish data and results regardless of how contentious the issue may be."

In a separate letter, also dated Dec. 7, former NOAA scientists urge Sullivan "to continue to resist any unwarranted congressional investigations that would contribute to stifling the scientific process and even intimidate NOAA scientists and their collaborators."

Jim Buizer, a climate change researcher now at the University of Arizona, used to work at NOAA and says he signed on to this letter after Smith issued a subpoena for, among other things, scientists' emails.

"It hits us on a very personal level, but also on a professional one," Buizer says. "It distracts people from the hard work that they're doing. And it's a distraction that doesn't serve the American people very well."

In the past, he says, people have gotten their hands on emails from climate scientists and taken them out of context to cast doubt on the scientists' research.

"We don't have anything to hide; it's just that people don't understand how we work," says Buizer.

These letters are just the latest in a fierce battle of correspondence that's been waged since the climate change study first appeared in June and came to Smith's attention.

"I have a couple of concerns about this study," the congressman tells NPR. "One, the timing is very suspicious, right before the climate meeting in Paris. Two, we have whistleblowers who have told us it was rushed, just to get it out for the Paris meeting, and some scientists felt like it had not been sufficiently vetted."

Smith says his biggest concern was that the study did not include satellite data, which he calls the gold standard. "It didn't seem to me to be a completely honest study," he says.

Asked if the normal peer review process done at a major journal like Science wouldn't have flagged any missing information or cherry picking of data, Smith says, "I don't think that Science magazine had access to a whistleblower like we did, saying it had been rushed and had not been sufficiently peer-reviewed."

"And, you know," the congressman adds, "Science magazine may have its own bias. I don't know, maybe they wanted to rush it out before the Paris summit as well."

Jesse Smith, a senior editor at Science, tells NPR that the manuscript was submitted in December of 2014, and the review process was thorough and not rushed at all.

"The process actually took longer than it usually does," the Science editor says, "because we subjected the paper to even more scrutiny than we subject most papers to."

What's more, the editor adds, satellite data is irrelevant to this study, which concerns sea surface temperatures from ships and buoys. "The paper wasn't about satellite measurements of tropospheric temperatures," he notes. "It was about sea surface temperature measurements, which are just one part of a larger picture."

"The scientific process is modern civilization's best means for arriving at reliable truth," says Rush Holt, the executive publisher of Science and head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "And that process should be allowed to work without political meddling," he says. The AAAS is one of eight major scientific associations that recently wrote to the congressman to express concern about the "chilling effect" this inquest could have on science.

Holt, a physicist who spent more than a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from New Jersey, seems especially peeved that Smith issued the subpoena.

"You don't issue subpoenas to scientists for doing their conscientious work," says Holt. "It's certainly an abuse of subpoenas."

Others agree that a congressional subpoena is a big hammer. "People normally think about that related to wrongdoing, to misconduct, to a criminal act, or to corruption," says Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA fisheries scientist now at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I think what he's doing is bullying. I think it's intimidation tactics."

Rosenberg notes that a rule change earlier this year means the chairman of the House science committee can now issue subpoenas more easily, without having to confer with the ranking minority member of the committee.

Currently that's Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who tells NPR that what Lamar Smith is doing "appears to be about politics. I haven't seen much science in it."

In an October letter to the Texas congressman, Johnson notes that "in the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54-year history of the Committee."

When asked about the accusation that he has used his power as chairman to harass scientists whose work he does not like, Smith says he has a responsibility to conduct oversight.

"And when I see government agencies using taxpayers' dollars and not coming up with studies that I think are based upon good data and good evidence and good science," Smith tells NPR, "then I think not only do the people have a right to know that, their representatives in Congress have a right to know that as well."

"In this case, I just simply want the facts to come out," Smith says. "And for reasons I don't understand, NOAA is resisting giving us the information that we requested, which of course would naturally make people suspicious."

NOAA spokesperson Ciaran Clayton says Smith's complaint that NOAA is resisting his requests for information is just not so. "We feel we've provided all the information that the committee needs to understand the issue," says Clayton.

The scientists who did the study briefed committee staffers two times to answer questions about the study's rationale and methodology, Clayton notes. Plus, she says, all of the data is publicly available on the agency's website.

NOAA has a scientific integrity process that allows employees to make anonymous complaints if they feel there's been an abuse of science or scientific misconduct. Clayton says no one has complained about this climate change study.

Right now, NOAA is working to respond to the latest letter from Lamar Smith. Although his previous requests included documents and communications to and from NOAA scientists, Smith has now prioritized getting emails and other documents relating to the study from nonscientist NOAA staffers. He's asked to see the information no later than Dec.15.

Editor's note on Dec. 31: The headline on this post has been edited to remove single quote marks from around the word "oversight." They had been there to signal that Congressional oversight is the issue in dispute. That is true. But they could also be seen as questioning Rep. Smith's position that he is conducting such oversight.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So is it oversight, or is it harassment? Those are two different views of an investigation being carried out by Republican Lamar Smith. He is chairman of the House Science Committee in Congress. And he's investigating a major study on climate change by government researchers. He says he's performing his oversight duties as a lawmaker. But NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that today, some 600 scientists and engineers, including former employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - or NOAA - are sending letters to the head of that agency, telling her to keep fighting against political interference in science.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: All of this started in June, when the prestigious journal Science published a study on climate change that was big news. NPR covered it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AUDIE CORNISH: Now a revision on how much the planet has been warming.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The study showed there had been no slowdown or pause in warming over the last couple decades, as researchers had previously thought. The so-called global warming hiatus had been a favorite talking point for conservatives who doubt the scientific consensus on climate change. But NOAA researcher Tom Karl told NPR...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOM KARL: We think the data no longer supports the notion of having a hiatus.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That got the attention of Lamar Smith. He's a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Science Committee.

LAMAR SMITH: I have a couple of concerns about the study. One, the timing is very suspicious, right before the climate meeting in Paris.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says whistleblowers have told him the study was rushed into publication. And he says it did not include satellite data.

L. SMITH: They left out the gold standard when it comes to determining what the global temperature has been and by - therefore sort of cherry picking their data, it didn't seem to me to be a completely honest study.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And you don't think the normal, scientific peer review process that would take place at a high-profile journal like Science would flag something like cherry picking data?

L. SMITH: No, I don't think that Science Magazine had access to a whistleblower like we did saying it had been rushed and had not been sufficiently peer-reviewed. And you know, Science Magazine may have its own bias. I don't know. Maybe they wanted to rush it out before the Paris summit as well.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's the world's largest multidisciplinary science society. Jesse Smith is an editor there. He says satellite data is irrelevant. This study dealt with sea surface temperature measurements from ships and buoys. And, he says, the review process took longer than normal.

JESSE SMITH: We subjected the paper to even more scrutiny than we subject most papers to.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: So if someone's going around saying that your journal is, like, shoddy and missing obvious points and, like, rushing things - I mean, do you take this personally at all?

J. SMITH: No. It's misguided and uninformed. So I can't really take it personally.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The executive publisher of Science and the head of the association is Rush Holt. He's a physicist who spent over a decade in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from New Jersey.

RUSH HOLT: The scientific process is modern civilization's best means for arriving at reliable truth. And that process should be allowed to work without political meddling.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What really bugged him was that Smith had issued a subpoena for tons of documents, including scientists' emails.

HOLT: You don't issue subpoenas to scientists for doing their conscientious work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You've served in Congress. Do you think issuing subpoenas for something like this is an abuse of power?

HOLT: It's certainly an abuse of subpoenas.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The subpoena is why Jim Buizer decided to sign the new letter that urges NOAA's administrator to keep protecting scientists from politics. Buizer is a climate expert who used to work for NOAA. Now he's at the University of Arizona. He says in the past, emails taken out of context have been used to cast doubt on the work of climate researchers.

JIM BUIZER: We don't have anything to hide. It's just that people don't understand how we work.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A rule change earlier this year made it easier for the House science chair to issue subpoenas. Andrew Rosenberg at the Union of Concerned Scientists worries that more will be coming.

ANDREW ROSENBERG: This one is to investigate scientists who produced a result he doesn't like. I think what he's doing is bullying. I think it's intimidation tactics.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Asked if he was bullying scientists, Lamar Smith says he is responsible for conducting oversight.

L. SMITH: And when I see government agencies using taxpayers' dollars and not coming up with studies that I think are based upon good data and good evidence and good science, then I think not only do the people have a right to know that. Their representatives in Congress have a right to know that as well.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says NOAA is resisting his request for information.

L. SMITH: Which, of course, would naturally make people suspicious.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NOAA's spokesperson, Ciaran Clayton, says all of the study's data is public and on the agency's website. The scientists who did the study twice met with committee staffers to answer questions.

CIARAN CLAYTON: We feel we've provided all the information that the committee needs to understand the issue.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Smith's latest request for NOAA documents says his first priority isn't communications from scientists but certain other NOAA staffers. He wants those documents by December 15. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.