Rep. Lamar Smith Versus Science: The Department of Commerce and NOAA Respond

November 23, 2015 | 12:41 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

The Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continue to resist attempts by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith to discredit a scientific study of global surface temperature published by NOAA scientists last June. As a former NOAA scientist and administrator, I have never been so proud of the agency for standing up for its scientists and scientific integrity.

For months, through repeated interviews with NOAA staff and then a subpoena, the chairman has attempted to manufacture controversy around the study, first by willfully misrepresenting scientists’ research methods and then changing course to wrongfully claim the study was “rushed” to publication. A couple of weeks ago, the chairman said he wanted to depose NOAA staff, then rescinded his request to do so.


Early last week, Chairman Smith’s efforts garnered another strongly worded response from the Committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. And then on Friday, November 20, NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan wrote to Chairman Smith in response to his letters to the Secretary of Commerce of November 13 and 18. “I have not or will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me,” she wrote.

Dr. Sullivan’s letter clarified the timeline and the facts concerning this hyper-aggressive and constantly shifting investigation by the Chairman. It was notable to me that Dr. Sullivan left the politics to the politicians, and focused on the science process, including responsiveness to the committee’s requests. I urge readers to read the full letter. Here, I try to capture the essence.

NOAA’s timeline

The back and forth between the Chairman and NOAA concerning this one paper, Karl et al. 2015, has been going on since the paper was published last June with back and forth between the Chairman’s staff and the agency every month. NOAA has responded with in-person briefings by scientists and offers of additional meetings, as well as detailed written responses to questions.

The data upon which the paper is based has been publicly available since July of 2014. The analysis of ocean temperature measurement calibrations was also based on published work in 2013 and 2014.

The paper at the center of this whole kerfuffle was submitted for publication in December 2014 and published in June 2015. From my experience in publishing papers in Science, as well as a peer reviewer for the journal from time to time, that isn’t an unusual timeline. A highly regarded publication that comes out weekly, manuscripts published in Science are short and report findings of broad interest.

Science usually asks for reviewers to comment within two weeks in my experience, but revisions may take longer and there may be two or more rounds of review and revision, as in this case according to the editor. It is common for reviewers to ask authors to clarify framing for the work, methodology and points in the interpretation, as well as include supplemental material in the online resources. But of course reviewers may comment on anything they like and the editors take all comments seriously.

NOAA’s response to Chairman Smith’s assertions

During this long drawn-out interaction, the Chairman has asserted without any evidence or analysis that NOAA scientists “altered the data”, that the data is “skewed and biased”, that the analysis was “politically correct” and most recently, that an unnamed whistleblower from within NOAA has claimed that the paper was “rushed to publication”. My colleagues Dr. Gretchen Goldman, and Michael Halpern questioned the veracity of these claims last week with links to relevant information.

In NOAA’s response, it is clear that the agency’s scientists proceeded with the study as other scientists would expect, starting with the data, exploring methodology, asking appropriate research questions (i.e., given more data, and better calibration between measurement methods, what does the time series of global surface temperatures tell us about the rates of change in temperature over the series of observations?). That is contrary to Chairman Smith’s assertion of a politically motivated study. Dr. Sullivan writes on pages 3 and 4:

In this case, NOAA has made the data and the analysis available to the Committee, the public, and the scientific community. The Committee has the raw data as well as the methodology that NOAA scientists used to analyze the data. Together these show that the decision to adjust the data was a scientific one. The article was peer-reviewed and published in a preeminent and independent scientific journal. If the Committee doubts the integrity of the study, it has the tools it needs to commission a competing scientific assessment.

The Chairman has also repeatedly claimed that NOAA has been unresponsive to his demands, and now threats of legal consequences. But Dr. Sullivan’s letter shows ongoing interactions and responsiveness to a changing set of demands and focus for Mr. Smith’s investigation. Dr. Sullivan writes that several times, offers to meet or requests to clarify the scope of what is wanted have been rebuffed or gone unanswered by the Chairman’s staff. And several times, Mr. Smith has claimed NOAA has been unresponsive even before reaching the deadline he set for a response.

Further, no claims of impropriety have been raised by anyone in the agency:

The Committee’s November 18 letter also refers to allegations by a whistleblower that the Karl study was rushed to publication. We note that the study was submitted to Science for consideration in December 2014, and Science made the decision to publish it in June 2015 after a rigorous evaluation and peer review. It is also worth noting that the data upon which the study relies was available publicly as early as July 2014. Nevertheless, we take any whistleblower allegations seriously and stand ready to work with the Committee, the Inspector General, or the NOAA scientific integrity review process to respond and evaluate these allegations appropriately. To date, NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Officer has received no allegations or inquiries on this matter.

Chilling science in a warming world

 The most disturbing aspect of the ever more aggressive tactics that Rep. Smith is using to attack NOAA is the effect on scientists everywhere. To me, opening a congressional investigation complete with a subpoena into a single published paper is an effort to turn the process of scientific inquiry and into a legal and political process. If Mr. Smith is successful, it may not be peer reviewers’ comments that will help shape research publications, as much as legal strategies. That is not the way to foster the creativity and spirit of inquiry for American science, inside or outside federal agencies. But isn’t that fostering of science exactly what the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is supposed to do?