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Trump’s pick to lead Commerce Department says NOAA scientists can freely share their work

Annual temperature difference from normal for Earth, 1880-2016. (NOAA)

Scientists have expressed concern that the Trump administration may impede the communication of climate science findings and data. But Trump’s pick for secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, says scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be permitted to share peer-reviewed work with the public.

If Ross is confirmed, he would be responsible for NOAA, which leads many climate monitoring and research efforts and regularly communicates results from these efforts to the public. For example, the agency recently announced that 2016 was the warmest year on record.

Scientists react to Earth’s warmest year: ‘We are heading into a new unknown’

During the George W. Bush administration, some climate scientists at NOAA said political appointees blocked their efforts to openly communicate their findings about the human role in climate change. Because Trump and several of his Cabinet picks have expressed uncertainty about these human contributions, there’s a concern that history will repeat itself.

Trump appointees on climate change: Not a hoax, but not a big deal either

Such concern increased early this week as the Trump administration issued a “media blackout” at the Environmental Protection Agency, banning news releases, blog updates or posts to the agency’s social media accounts, according to the Associated Press.

In addition, science researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture were ordered to stop publishing news releases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention preemptively canceled a climate and health summit planned for next month, fearing that the new administration would disapprove, The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis reported.

CDC abruptly cancels long-planned conference on climate change and health

But NOAA scientists, from early indications, may have more freedom to operate.

Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, sent a letter to Ross last week asking him what he would do “to ensure expert scientists at NOAA are protected from political interference like censorship and intimidation.”

Ross responded Monday that his department would provide the public “with as much factual and accurate data as we have available,” noting such information is made possible by taxpayers. “I see no valid reason to keep peer-reviewed research from the public,” he said.

Ross added that he wants NOAA to remain a “global leader” in its research efforts.

But Ross expressly dodged the issue of discussions pertaining to human contributions to climate change, suggesting that he and Nelson “put aside for now the question of what is causing these changes” and instead focus on the impacts of the changes.

Nelson, nevertheless, said he was satisfied with Ross’s response. “I’m pleased to report that, if confirmed, he has committed to me that he intends to leave science to the scientists and to support their ability to disseminate peer-reviewed data to the public,” he said.

While Nelson and Ross reached agreement on the free communication of peer-reviewed science, NOAA has also historically provided a wealth of information and data that are not peer-reviewed, leaving open a gray area.

It’s also not clear how the new administration will handle the translation of peer-reviewed (or non-peer-reviewed) science to the public. Although Ross said he would not keep peer-reviewed research from the public, he added this qualifier: “To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter.”

NOAA and the new administration: Will Trump make America’s weather model great again?

In other words, there are open questions with respect to whether all previously available NOAA data and information will reach the public and if and how technical information will be interpreted for public consumption.

Who will lead NOAA under President Trump?

Tuesday morning, the Senate Commerce Committee approved Trump’s appointment of Ross, which now awaits confirmation from the full Senate.