The standoff between federal climate scientists and a senior House Republican over a groundbreaking global warming study is exposing an emerging tension over government research: the freedom to pursue scientific truth vs. the public’s right to know what is being done with taxpayer money.

The flash point in the feud between House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a congressional subpoena. The congressman, a prominent global warming skeptic, is demanding that the government turn over its scientists’ internal exchanges and communications with NOAA’s top political appointees.

Smith believes this information, showing the researchers’ deliberative process, will prove that they altered data to fit President Obama’s climate agenda when they refuted claims in a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science that global warming had “paused” or slowed over the last decade.

“These are government employees who changed data to show more climate change,” the chairman said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Americans deserve to understand why this decision was made. Despite what some critics claim, the subpoena is not only about scientists. Political operatives and other NOAA employees likely played a large role in approving NOAA’s decision to adjust data that allegedly refutes the hiatus in warming.”

Under a 1998 law, data from federally funded research must be made public. But in general, the public’s right to know is not complete. Courts have exempted the deliberations of researchers from disclosure much as they exempt personnel matters, discussions of pending legislation, doctor-patient relationships, attorney-client conversations and classified national security matters.

Citing these confidentiality concerns and the integrity of the scientific progress, NOAA has so far refused to hand over its researchers’ internal communications.

But a subpoena from Congress usually throws these exemptions out the window, experts said. “When a committee chairman issues one under the jurisdiction of his committee, the traditional privileges don’t have to be recognized by Congress,”said Thomas Susman, director of government affairs at the American Bar Association.

“There’s an argument that you’re being paid by tax dollars, your deliberations ought to be subject to public review, Susman said. “It comes back to the question of accountability versus the potential for a chilling effect.” Susman, speaking for himself and not the bar association, said he would err on the side of disclosure since the NOAA issue has become highly politicized.

Smith could, in theory, hold NOAA in contempt of Congress if it continues to withhold its scientists’ communications. Congress could cut the agency’s budget as punishment. Lawmakers could, in other words, make NOAA officials’ life difficult.

Scientists who support the agency’s stand accuse the committee of a witch hunt that could intimidate any researcher from pursuing the painstaking and sometimes messy work they do.

They say the government should not capitulate to what they believe is a political fishing expedition designed to discredit NOAA’s climate study, which undercut claims of skeptics like Smith. They argue that protecting the deliberations of every researcher is essential for freedom to share ideas, talk frankly with colleagues and let the process of scientific understanding evolve.

Making their thoughts and questions public, they say, could put them under siege by climate skeptics who could seize on an offhand comment or glitch in the data and turn it against them.

“Science works through a huge degree of transparency with double, triple, and quadruple checking of results,” said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist who spent five years fighting a lawsuit from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank that sought access to his e-mails under the Freedom of Information Act. (A judge eventually dismissed the suit.)

Schmidt said of the NOAA study, released last June, “The data that comprised the analysis is publicly available. The scientific process is publicly available. You don’t need a special subpoena to reproduce the science.”

James Hansen, the retired NASA climate scientist who issued the clearest warning about the 20th century about the dangers of  global warming, said, “they’re looking for anything where they can make it appear something is untoward” with climate research. He was forced to turn over his e-mails to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “but they didn’t find anything juicy.”

“If Smith was concerned about getting the truth, he would ask the National Academy of Sciences to check on this, but that’s not what he wants,”he said.

Schmidt said his fight to keep his communications private disrupted his life for years.

“Your whole life is suddenly subject to minute inspection,” he said. “The whole thing is an extremely disruptive legal maneuver to prevent scientists from working on topics that are very serious.”

Smith’s push for access is treading a path laid by industry groups and politically active nonprofits in recent years to cast doubt on research showing that global warming is occurring.

Many of these efforts have been settled by the courts, with some ruling that e-mails be turned over and others rebuffing the request. The efforts have not altered the evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to climate change. They have, however, continued to roil the debate between skeptics of global warming and scientists and their allies.

The dragnet for scientists e-mails has targeted hundreds of private  messages and documents hacked from a computer server at a British university where American and British climate researchers discussed scientific data, whether it should be released and how to fight the arguments of skeptics. It has drawn in scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which handed over more than 3,000 e-mails to British Petroleum after the Deepwater Horizon spill, as part of a subpoena from the oil company demanding access to them in a lawsuit brought by the federal government.

And it’s aimed at the University of Virginia, subpoenaed by former GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, to turn over deliberations by a former professor to determine whether he defrauded taxpayers as he sought grants for global warming research. (Cuccinelli lost in the Virginia Supreme Court).

The battle over access has left at least one prominent scientist on Smith’s side. “The politicization of climate science has gotten extreme,” Judith Curry, professor and former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote on earlier this month.

“While potentially undisclosed industrial funding of research is a legitimate concern, climate science research funding from government is many orders of magnitude larger than industrial funding of such work. If the House Science Committee can work to minimize the political influence on government-funded research, and also help to resolve legitimate scientific issues, it will have done both science and the policies that depend on science a big favor.”

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