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.
"As you know, I am heavily involved in the Smithsonian Ocean Hall developments, and the issue of 'unintended political consequences' is quite serious," wrote Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in charge of the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. "This will be especially so with the Arctic Exhibit as well."
Spinrad said in an interview, "My goal in this was to stick to the science, focus on research activities and not have this become a political debate."
The idea for the Arctic exhibit emerged in 2001 as the museum was developing its "Forces of Change" series that had included an El Niño exhibition. Bill Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center, suggested the idea, writing in an e-mail, "It seems silly not to include the arctic, where climate research has been so productive and so prominent, and where the impacts of change also include humans."
In an interview, Fitzhugh said that from the beginning, the exhibit was meant to focus on anthropology, not the climate.
"We were not doing an exhibit on modern climate formation," Fitzhugh said. "There are some things we can't do easily because we're in the political limelight. We have to walk a difficult line."
Fitzhugh added that the scientists knew they needed to avoid upsetting lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is a skeptic about human causes of climate change. "He's out there, we know he's out there, but it hasn't influenced what we've done."
Before the exhibit opened in the spring of 2006, a NOAA official referred to "the HQ push to appease the senior senator."
"Arctic Meltdown," the original name of the show, was designed to "explore dramatic changes during the past half-century in the Arctic environment," according to a June 2003 statement of purpose. The exhibit would show "global changes can have local consequences and local changes can have global consequences," the statement read.
Igor Krupnik, a Smithsonian scientist who reviewed the initial statement, called it a "very good start," but said it was important to find "a new title (or better title)." He suggested one based on a University of Colorado researcher's interview of an Inuit tribesman who had referred to Arctic weather as uggianaqtuq, which she interpreted to mean "you are not yourself."
Smithsonian researchers changed the title later in the summer of 2003 to "The Arctic: A Friend Acting Strange," and later the last word became "Strangely." That title also was almost jettisoned when a linguistic expert questioned the translation, saying uggianaqtuq really means "being eaten by dogs or lice."
The phrase "arctic meltdown" wound up being used on an exhibit panel in the midst of the show.
After two years of work, the Smithsonian planners convened a final series of meetings before the scheduled mid-October premiere date in 2005.
The project was also scrutinized by politically appointed officials in the administration, records show.
In mid-August 2005, an interagency group that included NOAA, NASA, the National Science Foundation and former interior secretary Gale Norton's science adviser "talked through the script and recommended changes," Abdalati, a top climate-change expert at NASA, wrote later in his e-mail. "There was some discussion of the political sensitivities of the exhibit."
On Oct. 15, 2005, the exhibit was scheduled to open but was delayed at the request of Samper.
Three days later, NOAA climate scientist John Calder wrote to his boss, Spinrad, the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research administrator.
"The issue of climate variability and change in the Arctic is a key part of the exhibit and everybody wants to ensure that the exhibit is 'fair and balanced' and not likely to cause excessive feedback from the politicos," Calder wrote, adding that the reviewers were to meet "at the Smithsonian with senior officials of the museum and go over any contentious issues."
In his e-mail reply, Spinrad said he wanted "one or two who are connected to the political side of life (e.g. Stephanie Bailenson)," who at the time was a senior policy adviser to the under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and who shortly thereafter went to work for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's environmental protection agency.
A few days later, Samper drafted a memo to Calder saying that the museum would be unable to "replicate" work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "or any other science document oriented towards general public. Our main audience is school groups and family visitors, which impacts formats and graphics and restricts the complexity of what we can produce."
In his interview with The Post, Samper acknowledged taking a cautious approach "because it had the words 'climate change,' which is a politically sensitive issue."
In May of this year, Robert Sullivan, the Natural History Museum's former associate director for public programs, told the Associated Press that the purpose of the delay was to tone down the Arctic exhibit for fear of political backlash.
The Smithsonian issued a news release saying that Samper "denounced" Sullivan's allegations, noting that Sullivan "is neither a scientist nor a curator." In the release, Samper said, "We would never alter an exhibition on global climate change that would contradict our own knowledge and research, and that of other leading scientists around the world."
An e-mail exchange obtained by The Post and not previously made public shows that Samper told the exhibit's developer, Barbara Stauffer, to add a discussion of uncertainty in the science behind climate-change modeling.
He also asked her to change the "order of the questions in the introductory panel." He suggested that the exhibit begin with the earlier history of climate changes in the Artic. He asked that the more dramatic temperature changes in the past 50 years be moved farther back in the exhibit.
Samper said in the interview that the changes he was recommending were meant to reflect the current debate about the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
On Oct. 25, 2005, a few days after the e-mail exchange, the "final script" was changed. The Post obtained printouts of a Microsoft Word document of the script that had tracked the changes, including deletions and additions. The document includes the date changes were made but does not indicate who made them.
Before Samper's review, the exhibit's introduction panel stated, "Over the past 50 years, the average temperatures across the Arctic have risen by nearly twice as much as the global average." After Samper asked for changes, the entrance panel read, "The Earth's climate is changing -- and it always has."
On the fourth panel of the exhibit, this phrase was deleted: "If you want to see what the rest of the planet is going to see in the next generation, watch out for the Arctic in the next five to 10 years." That sentence was replaced with, "A warming Arctic may spur dramatic changes at the top of our planet."
In November, NOAA climate researcher Kathleen Crane wrote an e-mail to a NOAA colleague explaining that the Smithsonian requested "another-final review" of the text because of "the debate within the administration and the science community over the existence and cause of global warming."
The double-checking offended Abdalati, a scientist who studies high-latitude glaciers and ice sheets using satellite and airborne instruments. The manager of NASA's Cryospheric Sciences Program at the time, Abdalati has been on nine field expeditions to the Greenland ice sheet and the Canadian Arctic.
"I also had the feeling that at the highest level, there was some fear that we irresponsible program managers were putting out alarming information, that needed to be checked by our superiors," Abdalati said in the e-mail.
"I never felt that as a scientist, I was pressured to change any of the input," he noted. "The real question is what happened at the highest level after that input came in. That I don't know."
In an interview Wednesday night, Abdalati said he thought the pressure came from "the highest levels of the Smithsonian to avoid a political backlash."