What’s the Deal with Rep. Lamar Smith’s Subpoena to NOAA over Climate Science? An FAQ Resource

November 16, 2015 | 4:10 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

Concern is growing about the broader implications of House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s subpoena to NOAA and subsequent actions. Chairman Smith is misleading the public about what he is asking for and how NOAA updated its long-term climate dataset. As a result, some inaccurate headlines and articles have been published. As a result, I thought a post of Frequently Asked Questions on the topic would be timely. So here goes:

Chairman Smith of the House Science Committee subpoenaed NOAA scientists for seven years worth of correspondence on climate research. Photo: NOAA

Chairman Smith of the House Science Committee subpoenaed NOAA scientists for seven years worth of correspondence on climate research. Photo: NOAA

The basic facts

On October 13, the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Lamar Smith issued a subpoena to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asking for all correspondence, notes, and other materials from the last seven years related to the work of certain NOAA climate scientists, motivated by their authorship on a paper published in Science earlier this year. The move was one of the first uses of the Chairman’s newly granted subpoena powers, which allow him to issue subpoenas without the consent of both parties. On October 27, NOAA sent a letter back to Smith outlining the publicly available data and research methods, resources, and other communications that Rep. Smith already had access to.

Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking member on the House Science Committee, sent a scathing letter to Chairman Smith condemning the “illegitimate harassment” by Rep. Smith on October 23. Then on November 4, the American Meteorological Society echoed this sentiment in its own letter to the Chairman, disapproving of his actions.

Despite this criticism, Rep. Smith has said he intends to move forward with the subpoena. “Recorded interviews” (effectively depositions) are planned in which the lead author of the study and head of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information Thomas Karl and several other NOAA employees will field questions from Rep. Smith and his colleagues.

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Is NOAA refusing to hand over scientific information?

Rep. Smith’s subpoena is extremely broad. It asks for nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among NOAA scientists, including “all documents and communications” related to NOAA’s measurement of our climate. “All documents and communications” would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a host of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.

Some headlines have implied that NOAA is concealing scientific data and research methods, but this isn’t the case. As NOAA detailed in its letter to Rep. Smith, the Science Committee (and anyone with an internet connection) has access to the data and methods used to produce the results in the study. This is all he needs to be able to assess the quality of the science under discussion. Still, NOAA went the extra step and met several times with committee staff to provide them with the (again, already publicly available) data, explain the science, and answer numerous questions. But Smith continued with the subpoena regardless.

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Why is Smith so interested in this study anyway?

A good question. The study under discussion analyzes surface observation data for temperature, one input (but not the only input) into scientists’ measuring the rate at which climate change is occurring. (For a full summary of the paper and its implications, check out my colleague Roberto Mera’s post). In recent years there was an apparent hiatus or slowdown in the rate of global warming observed from surface temperature observations, a point that climate contrarians have (inaccurately) used repeatedly to make the case that climate change is either not happening or has been exaggerated.

Karl et al. 2015 updates NOAA’s global temperature dataset using a larger weather station database and gives new understanding of temperature biases in sea surface temperature raw observations collected from sources like buoys and ships. These updates to observational datasets happen all of the time as biases are discovered and dealt with and more observations come online. The article finds that the alleged pause in warming rate largely disappears. (For a detailed explanation of the study and debunking of Rep. Smith’s inaccurate claims about it, see this FactCheck.org piece.) The study is an important development in our understanding of how surface temperature changes, but to be clear, nothing out of the ordinary was done from a scientific perspective.  The study does, however, create inconvenient new science for those looking to cast doubt on climate science.

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Is it common for scientists to update datasets in this manner?

NOAA scientists collect temperature observations from land and sea all over the world. To make these measurements comparable to detect trends over time, scientists need to adjust for differences in temperature readings from buoys, ships, urban and rural areas, among other factors. Photo: NOAA

NOAA scientists collect temperature observations from land and sea all over the world. To make these measurements comparable to detect trends over time, scientists need to adjust for differences in temperature readings from buoys, ships, urban and rural areas, among other factors. Photo: NOAA

To be clear, the updates that the NOAA scientists made to the global temperature dataset were normal and routine, as scientists need to account for all kinds of changes to how temperature observations are taken over time and all over the world. Taking temperature measurements from ships has evolved over the last century, from use of wooden buckets to (more insulated) rubber buckets to use of ship intake valves. These different methods will yield slightly different temperature readings even if they were all taken from the same ship at the same time. Scientists need to account for these differences when analyzing temperature changes. (More explanation of this concept is here).

Think of it this way:  If you were tracking your body weight over time, and sometimes you stepped on the scale with heavy clothes on, sometimes while holding a dumbbell, and sometimes while on the moon, then you’d want to account for these differences to see how your true body weight changed over time. To not do this would give you an inaccurate record of your weight over time. This is what scientists do when they update temperature data sets—make adjustments so that all temperature readings are comparable over time and space.

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Why would NOAA want to protect scientists’ communications?

An inquiry like Smith’s that dives deeper, asking for internal communications between NOAA scientists is invasive and unnecessary for a legitimate investigation of scientific validity. As I and my colleagues have documented extensively before (and again here and here), communications among scientists on scientific topics should be protected from public scrutiny. Such privacy for scientific deliberations is necessary for scientists to have the freedom to share ideas, talk frankly with colleagues, and let scientific understanding evolve. This is how science works. Investigations like Rep. Smith’s waste time and resources and send a chilling message to scientists about their freedom to share their work.

Last week, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) sent a letter to Rep. Smith, echoing this point. “Singling out specific research studies, and implicitly questioning the integrity of the researchers conducting those studies, can be viewed as a form of intimidation that could deter scientists from freely carrying out research on important national challenges,” wrote the AMS.

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Doesn’t Congress have the authority to conduct oversight of federal agencies, which use taxpayer dollars?

Indeed, Congress has the authority to conduct oversight of federal agencies, and this is what Rep. Smith is invoking to target the NOAA scientists. Specifically, Rep. Smith is exploiting his new (worrisome) unilateral subpoena powers that don’t require agreement from both parties on the committee. The new powers make it more likely that oversight will be political in nature. But instead of focusing on what Congress has the authority to do, we should ask whether it should be spending its limited time and resources on investigating the science of individual research studies. Is this a responsible use of that authority?

There are of course many situations where Congressional oversight is warranted and helpful for understanding actions taken by the executive branch and for seeking out waste, fraud, and abuse within the government. This is why Congress was granted this authority by our forefathers. But here we have a different case. First, there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the scientists.  The paper in question used publicly available data and methods, was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in a top journal, and is widely accepted by the scientific community. Nevertheless, the issuance of a subpoena, and public misrepresentations of science suggesting that NOAA has “altered data” and is hiding information, suggests guilt. Rather transparently, this demonstrates that Smith’s subpoena is not about the science; it’s about politics.

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Is it normal for the House Science Committee to subpoena scientists’ communications?

Disturbingly, we are seeing Congress now take on the tactics that were previously reserved only for industry and fringe politically active nonprofits. As my colleague Michael Halpern points out, witch hunts for scientists’ emails are an increasingly common intimidation tactic used by industry groups to cast doubt on evidence that is viewed as contrary to their interests. In order to access scientists’ internal exchanges, other entities and public officials have used subpoenas (see British Petroleum and Woods Hole or former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli), open records laws (see many examples), and theft (see Climategate). But a congressional committee chairman using that tactic takes it to a new level.

It’s also worth noting the similarities in timing and tactic between Rep. Smith’s actions and another time that climate scientists’ privacy was compromised for political gain. In the summer of 2009—just before the international climate talks in Copenhagen—stolen emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia were released and taken out of context to cast doubt on the evidence showing climate change is occurring. Now, a month before another round of important global climate negotiations in Paris, we are seeing another attempt to scrutinize and release the private deliberations of climate scientists.

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Why should I trust the scientific integrity of NOAA scientists?

Let’s take a step back and look at what we are talking about here. Scientists at NOAA are using publicly available data and have shared their methods. Their work has stood up to scrutiny from their peers in the scientific community. In the world of science, this gives the work credibility. Disagreements with the approach or findings of the study should be battled out in the scientific literature. Other scientists with concerns about the study are free to re-analyze the data and publish their own findings. This is how scientific work is scrutinized, challenged, and made more robust over time.

As an agency, NOAA is no stranger to scientific integrity. In fact, NOAA has one of the strongest scientific integrity policies of any federal agency.  A recent survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that many NOAA scientists agree that the scientific integrity there is top-notch. One scientist wrote, “I have always believed that the scientific integrity was the top priority, and that the facts speak for themselves. I have never witnessed at any level attempts to change or suppress findings, even if they are controversial.” And another scientist tellingly responded, “NOAA conducts cutting edge science. The integrity of the science is not the problem. The problem is a lack of public (see Congress) recognition and appreciation for the quality of the work being done.”

To be sure, the survey also found areas where NOAA could improve. Most notably, there’s evidence that NOAA should be doing more to make sure its employees are aware of and adhering to its scientific integrity policy. NOAA’s Chief Scientist has said that he will continue to work on addressing these issues and evidence points to the fact that NOAA takes scientific integrity seriously.

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What’s the significance of this whole thing?

Rep. Smith’s actions raise alarms in the scientific community, especially when taken in conjunction with his other recent actions targeting scientists. In sum, Rep. Smith’s actions serve to intimidate scientists studying the climate. What’s especially disturbing in this case, is that the Chairman is now employing intimidation tactics that have until now been reserved for the tobacco industry, front groups and the like. This is a troubling trend and one that should be watched closely.

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