Scientists Fault Climate Exhibit Changes

By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 16, 2007

Some government scientists have complained that officials at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History took steps to downplay global warming in a 2006 exhibit on the Arctic to avoid a political backlash, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The museum's director, Cristián Samper, ordered last-minute changes to the exhibit's script to add "scientific uncertainty" about climate change, according to internal documents and correspondence.

Scientists at other agencies collaborating on the project expressed in e-mails their belief that Smithsonian officials acted to avoid criticism from congressional appropriators and global-warming skeptics in the Bush administration. But Samper said in an interview last week that "there was no political pressure -- not from me, not from anyone."

Samper put the project on hold for six months in the fall of 2005 and ordered that the exhibition undergo further review by higher-level officials in other government agencies. Samper also asked for changes in the script and the sequence of the exhibit's panels to move the discussion of recent climate change further back in the presentation, records also show. The exhibit opened in April 2006 and closed in November of that year.

The Post obtained a hand-scrawled note by a curator on the project indicating there was "concern that scientific uncertainty hasn't come out enough." Edits to a "final script" show notations about where to add "the idea of scientific uncertainty about climate research."

In the interview, Samper said "one of his main concerns" was that the exhibit was indicating a level of certainty that he thought went beyond the contemporary science. "I think as scientists we present the information, but we let the people draw their own conclusions," said Samper, who was promoted earlier this year to serve as acting secretary of the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian is sensitive to the viewpoints of members of Congress, which is not averse to holding hearings to publicly criticize museum decisions. Several exhibitions in the past have drawn lawmakers' wrath, such as the National Air and Space Museum's handling of the Enola Gay bomber exhibit in 1994-95 and an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge photo display at the Natural History Museum in 2003, when the Bush administration was considering oil and gas drilling in the region. Natural History officials subsequently moved the photographs to a less prominent spot and changed the captions.

The effort to tone down the Arctic presentation offended other scientists involved in the project, according to an e-mail written by NASA scientist Waleed Abdalati to his superiors in June. "Something strange happened," he said in the e-mail. "For the focus to be shifted from scientific content to political content, I found disturbing for a museum."

The additional review was prompted by "political sensitivities as opposed to content," Abdalati wrote.

"You know that I am not an alarmist," Abdalati noted, "but I will say that a museum can't do an honest exhibit about what is happening in the Arctic without causing people some serious concern."

Samper, a candidate to become the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian following the ouster of Lawrence Small earlier this year, is scheduled to meet with the Board of Regents on Monday as they prepare to discuss another controversy: a $5 million donation from the American Petroleum Institute to fund the Natural History Museum's Ocean Initiative exhibit hall and Web site. Samper approved the gift offer and sent it to the regents, where final approval rests. Two leading regents have raised questions about the appearance of oil companies donating to a major marine exhibition.

One top Commerce Department official compared the political sensitivities of the Ocean Initiative with that of the Arctic exhibit, according to an e-mail prior to the show's opening in 2005.

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