The Trump transition team appeared to back away from a controversial questionnaire sent to the Energy Department last week that asked for the names of department staffers who had worked on several climate-change initiatives under President Obama.

“The questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol,” Trump’s transition team said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The person who sent it has been properly counseled.”

The disavowal marked one of the earliest apparent instances of the Trump transition team changing course and seeming to acknowledge a mistake, although even that is unclear. Also Wednesday, Trump transition adviser Anthony Scaramucci had appeared to defend the inquiry on CNN’s “New Day” with Chris Cuomo, saying, “This is an intellectual-curiosity expedition.”

The Trump transition team has issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which department employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation's carbon output. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

The issue of the potential political interference with science has risen quickly to the top of many minds, with scientists demonstrating in the streets of San Francisco outside a major scientific meeting of the American Geophysical Union, and some beginning to download publicly available government data for fear the new administration will make it difficult to access or will wipe some of it clean.

Climate researchers have been concerned by a string of major Trump appointees — Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry at the Energy Department and Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department — who have expressed doubts about the reality of human-caused climate change. But the biggest controversy has sprung from the Energy Department memo. Last week, The Post reported, following Bloomberg, that the Energy Department had received a 74-item questionnaire from the Trump transition team containing some apparently unprecedented requests.

Those included the following: “Can you provide a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any Conference of the Parties (under the UNFCCC) in the last five years?” That question referred to the series of international climate-change meetings, convened by the United Nations, that recently led to the negotiation of the Paris climate accord.

Another question asked for a list of employees who had participated in meetings between federal agencies related to the “social cost of carbon,” a metric the Obama administration has used to try to calculate the cost of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Other questions seemed to raise doubts about climate-change-related science conducted by the department, questioning who may have worked on “integrated assessment models,” which study the conjoined climate and energy system and project its changes out into the future, and asking about specific aspects of the programming of such models, such as, “What was DOE’s opinion on the proper equilibrium climate sensitivity?”

The change of stance on the memo was first reported by CNN.

The questionnaire was widely denounced by scientific groups and several Democratic members of Congress, who were most alarmed by the request for the names of individual civil servants at the department.

Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy Committee, and Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, sent a letter Wednesday to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, expressing concern that the questionnaire “may be an attempt to apply an ideological ‘litmus test’ to career civil servants, which runs counter to the principle of a merit-based civil service and the prohibition against discrimination against civil servants on the basis of political affiliation.”

They requested copies of the questionnaire and of any such questionnaires sent to other federal agencies.

Unions representing Energy Department employees also bristled at the requests. The department has refused to provide the requested information about its staff.

“It’s great to see the Trump transition team disavow these inappropriate demands,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The overwhelmingly negative response to the questionnaire from the science community and beyond demonstrates that scientists are organized and ready to speak out when scientific integrity is under threat.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also hailed the turnabout. “The Trump transition team was right to abandon its effort to conduct a politically-motivated witch hunt at the Department of Energy, and President-elect Trump should commit to never attempt this type of inquisition at any other federal agency ever again,” he said in a statement.

Others defended the questionnaire.

“Questions like these are not aimed at retaliation but are intended to assist the next administration in getting up to speed and not interrupting the business of the people,” said Rob Henneke, general counsel of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. “And I think also I would say it is the obligation of those currently in these agencies to fully cooperate with the needs of the next administration.”

The questionnaire has already had a major ripple effect, with the outgoing Interior Department secretary, Sally Jewell, using a speech in San Francisco on Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting to tell scientists to “speak up and to talk about the importance of scientific integrity, and if they see that being undermined to say something about it.”

Asked whether it was appropriate for Jewell to make such comments, White House press secretary Josh Earnest supported her.

“I think the president’s view is that policymaking should be guided by science and that policymakers should be listening to scientists, both inside the government and outside the government,” he said. “If the incoming administration determines that they want to base their policy on something other than science, it looks like they’re going [to get] at least get four years to try that out, and we’ll have an opportunity to see how it works.”

Scientists and climate activists are justified in being concerned about being muzzled under the next administration, Earnest added.

Based on some of the comments that we’ve seen from the people that the incoming administration or the president-elect has chosen to serve in important positions like the EPA and the Department of Energy,” he said, “I think you know, the concerns that people across the country and around the globe have expressed about the incoming administration’s commitment to focusing and continuing the fight on climate change I think are legitimate questions, at this point.”

Sarah Kaplan in San Francisco contributed to this report.

Read more at Energy & Environment:

The Arctic just had its hottest year on record ‘by far,’ scientists say

Scientists are frantically copying U.S. climate data, fearing it might vanish under Trump

Atmospheric levels of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, are spiking, scientists report

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