By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006
Inspectors general at two agencies have begun an investigation into whether the Bush administration has suppressed government scientists' research on global warming, officials at NASA and the Commerce Department confirmed yesterday.
Prompted by a request this fall by 14 Democratic senators, the IGs are examining whether political appointees have prevented climate researchers at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from conveying their findings to the public.
The issue of global warming has emerged as one of the most contentious scientific debates within the administration. In the past year, several federal climate scientists, including James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, have accused the administration of muzzling them, a charge the White House has denied.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and author of the Sept. 29 letter to the two inspectors general, said yesterday in an interview that he was pleased about the investigation. "It's extremely important, because the evidence is so obvious that they've tried to block the presentation of information on this in an unbiased fashion," Lautenberg said.
The probe's results should become public early next year, a Lautenberg aide said.
Officials at NASA and the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, pledged to cooperate with any inquiry but defended their media policies.
"We support and encourage a process of open, peer-reviewed science, and the role of our public affairs office, like any other organization, is to coordinate and ensure that media get timely, accurate and thorough information," said Richard Mills, spokesman for Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez.
NASA spokesman Dean Acosta, whose agency came under intense media scrutiny once Hansen aired his allegations in January, noted that since then: "NASA clarified its policy ensuring free and open communications of scientific and engineering data with the public and across the agency. The revised policy was widely distributed and widely reported upon. It is working well."
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called the idea of human-induced climate change a "hoax," questioned why government officials would be investigating the matter. "This is purely eleventh-hour election-year politics," he said.
Some federal scientists interviewed yesterday said they welcomed the probe because they had encountered problems in speaking to reporters about their work.
Tom Knutson, a climate research scientist at NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., said he could not speak in his official capacity, "but as a private citizen, I think it's a good idea they're looking into that. There should be open lines of communication between scientists and the media, and some of what I experienced did not meet that standard."
A year ago, Knutson said, Bush administration officials twice blocked him from discussing with television reporters a possible connection between global warming and hurricanes.
An Oct. 19, 2005, e-mail exchange between Commerce Department spokesman Chuck Fuqua and NOAA spokesman Kent Laborde, concerning a possible CNBC interview with Knutson, details Fuqua's concern that Knutson is less willing to discount the connection than two other government researchers. "Why can't we have one of the other guys on then?" Fuqua asked Laborde. The exchange was posted on the Web site of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).