A Northeastern University researcher who was asked to remove any reference to climate change from her Energy Department grant proposal said Monday that she had posted the letter publicly “because I found it to be a stark reminder of the ongoing politicization of science.”
Jennifer Bowen, an ecologist and associate professor at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, had posted a letter Friday on her personal Facebook page from a DOE official that asked her to eliminate references to climate change in an application for federal funds. Bowen’s project aims to explore how environmental factors such as climate change affect the ecology of salt marshes, which serve as an important carbon sink.
“I have been asked to contact you to update the wording in your proposal abstract to remove words such as ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change,’” wrote an official at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “This is being asked as we have to meet the President’s budget language restrictions and we don’t want to make any changes without your knowledge or consent.”
While Bowen subsequently took the post down, it gained traction on social media before it was deleted.
This is what censorship looks like. pic.twitter.com/NU44HAiRVx
— Dr. Yana Weinstein (@doctorwhy) August 25, 2017
Another ecologist, University of Arizona associate professor Scott Saleska, received a similar letter from the same lab on his grant to study how permafrost is affected by decomposing plants.
“I think it is an unfortunate symptom of the Trump administration’s decisions to use political criteria for funding science,” Saleska wrote in an email, though he added that it is “a relatively minor deal that we are being asked to clarify the wording of public abstracts of already funded projects.”
A DOE spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has repeatedly questioned whether human activity is the main driver of climate change, including in a June interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
While most of the Trump administration’s top scientific posts remain unfilled, Perry and other Cabinet members have begun to revamp the federal government’s approach to science on several fronts. Earlier this month, the Commerce Department declined to renew the charter for an outside advisory panel on the National Climate Assessment, while the Interior Department has suspended more than 200 advisory panels as it reviews their roles and membership. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has given notice to dozens of scientists advising the agency that their terms will not be renewed, though they have the option of reapplying.
In an email, Bowen said that she has “immense respect for the civil servants who are doing a tremendous job facilitating our research under trying conditions” and that they did not try to redirect the focus of her work.
“I do think it is important to make clear that at no time was I asked to change the research scope of my proposed project or modify the contents of the proposal in any other way, with the exception of the language that was to be posted on the government’s website,” she said.
But she said she decided to make the letter public to show the hurdles that scientific inquiry faces given the change in administration.
“I firmly believe that scientists should have the intellectual freedom to tackle the most pressing issues of the day, regardless of the political landscape,” Bowen wrote. “I also believe that researchers, policymakers, and the public should maintain an ongoing dialogue regarding the role that science plays in today’s society.”