NOAA Pushes Back on Chairman Smith's Claims on Climate Science Paper

November 19, 2015
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

On Monday, I wrote a blog post of FAQs on House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s subpoena to NOAA scientists over publication of a new climate science paper. Now NOAA speaks out against Rep. Smith’s claims. 

NOAA routinely collects and analyzes greenhouse gas measurements, but on a recent paper, House Science Committee Chairman has chosen to intimidate scientists with an unfounded subpoena asking for 7 years worth of materials from NOAA scientists. Photo: NOAA

NOAA routinely collects and analyzes greenhouse gas measurements, but on a recent paper, House Science Committee Chairman has chosen to intimidate scientists with an unfounded subpoena asking for 7 years worth of materials from NOAA scientists. Photo: NOAA

Chairman Smith makes new claims, but offers no new evidence

Until now offering no suggestion of wrongdoing by the NOAA scientists to justify use of his new, broad subpoena powers, Chairman Smith yesterday issued a press release claiming information from a NOAA whistleblower motivates his investigation. According to Chairman Smith, a NOAA employee alleges that the paper in question (Karl et al. 2015) was rushed to publication and skirted NOAA processes for approval of publications. Let’s unpack these claims and see what NOAA has to say about it.

First, let’s remind ourselves that no scientist would ever say that publication in academic journals is fast. The process typically takes many months in which the manuscript is drafted and edited by all authors and then submitted to a journal for peer review. Peer-review comments and suggestions go back to the authors who are required to react to them and adjust the manuscript accordingly. Even if peer reviewers don’t have major revision requests, authors will likely need to make some minor changes before a journal editor will accept the journal for publication and there may be some delay before that manuscript is actually published. In this case, the manuscript—which updated a NOAA data set in a routine and not scientifically remarkable way—was originally submitted to the journal in 2014 and wasn’t published until this summer.

(Post update 11/19/15, 5:00PM EST: Even more, the update to the dataset that caused “the pause” to disappear was actually done in 2013. That dataset was published in two other papers here and here. The Karl paper is a continuation and expansion of this work but doesn’t represent new or novel methods that weren’t already known and regularly employed by scientists in this space.)

That said, federal agencies do have protocols for publications by federal scientists. So what’s NOAA’s policy? NOAA’s scientific integrity policy and the Department of Commerce’s public communications policy offer guidance to NOAA employees on external publications. A paper like Karl et al. 2015 would be considered “fundamental research communication” and NOAA states, “while there is an internal pre-publication process to follow, there is no approval required to publish.”

NOAA responds to Chairman Smith’s accusations

Did the scientists in question fail to follow this pre-publication process? The Union of Concerned Scientists confirmed yesterday with NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Office that to date it has received no allegation of research misconduct under the scientific integrity policy regarding this publication.

And as the Washington Post reports late yesterday, NOAA asserts that there was no wrongdoing and the agency is hiding nothing.

“The notion that this paper was rushed to publication is false. In December 2014, the co-authors of the study submitted their findings to Science — a leading scientific journal. Following a rigorous peer review process, which included two rounds of revisions to ensure the credibility of the data and methodologies used, Science informed the authors that the paper would be published in June.

“The notion that NOAA is ‘hiding something’ is also false. We have been transparent and cooperative with the House Science Committee to help them better understand the research and underlying methodologies. … We stand behind our scientists who conduct their work in an objective manner.”

An aide to the Science Committee told The Post that the committee “has been in continual contact with whistleblowers for some time and received new information as recently as yesterday.”

To conclude, no internal objections were formally raised at NOAA, and the paper went through peer review. If scientists have questions about the data then they should challenge it through the scientific literature. Scientific disagreements are settled in science, not courts or Congress. Since several other papers have been consistent with the Karl paper, it is highly unlikely that any problems will be found. We’ve still yet to see any solid evidence of wrongdoing on NOAA’s part and it continues to appear that Chairman Smith’s crusade continues to be nothing more than a witch hunt.

About the author

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Gretchen Goldman is the research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. For a decade, Dr. Goldman has led research efforts at the nexus of science and policy on topics including federal scientific integrity, fossil energy production, climate change, and environmental justice. Dr. Goldman has testified before Congress and currently sits on the board of the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists.