American Meteorological Society Slams House Science Committee Witch Hunt

November 4, 2015
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

The American Meteorological Society today issued a strongly-worded letter condemning House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s ongoing harassment of government climate scientists. The letter is in response to a demand made by Chairman Smith under new, unilateral subpoena powers for all correspondence, notes and other materials from the last seven years related to the work of certain NOAA climate scientists.

“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.

The House Science Committee has issued subpoenas for scientists' emails and other communications. This harassment should be condemned and resisted. Cartoon copyright UCS/Morgan Swofford

The House Science Committee has issued subpoenas for scientists’ emails and other communications. This harassment should be condemned and resisted. Cartoon copyright UCS/Morgan Swofford

As we have extensively documented, attacking scientists by going after correspondence is an increasingly common intimidation tactic used by industry groups to cast doubt on evidence that is viewed as contrary to their interests. 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) to access scientists’ internal exchanges.But a congressional committee chairman using that tactic takes it to a new level.

So why is there so much interest in this one study? Recently, NOAA went through a routine update of global temperature data and found that the climate has continued to warm through the first 14 years of this century. The paper went through the peer review process and was published in the prestigious journal Science; NOAA put all of its data and methods on its website.

Rep. Smith took exception to the study because it refutes suggestions that there had been a slowdown in the rate of warming. NOAA met several times with committee staff to provide them with the (again, already publicly available) data, explain the science, and answer numerous questions. It did no good. And out came the subpoena.

Last week, NOAA responded in a four-page letter to Chairman Smith that summarized the exhaustive briefings and data that NOAA has provided for the committee. This point was not lost on the AMS, which continued in its letter (emphasis is original):

“NOAA has stated, unambiguously, that all data and methodologies used for this research are freely available. The demand for internal communications associated with their research places a burden on NOAA scientists, imposes a chilling effect on future communication among scientists, and potentially disrupts NOAA’s critical efforts to protect life and property. NOAA and other Federal agencies employ world-class scientists who seek knowledge and understanding with commitment and dedication. The advancement of science depends on investigators having the freedom to carry out research objectively and without the fear of threats or intimidation whether or not their results are expedient or popular.”

The real reason for the subpoena, of course, is not to gain a better understanding of the science. It is designed to suggest that NOAA has something to hide, which carries with it an assumption of guilt.

And from some sectors, they’re getting the response they want. Media Matters for America has an excellent summary of how news of the subpoena is being spun by those who won’t accept the science. “NOAA refuses to release data,” one pundit wrote. NOAA refused to “pass along a host of data related to the study,” wrote another. “What’s NOAA hiding?” read a third. Who cares whether any of this is true?

Now think about how responsible their coverage would be with access to all of the scientists’ emails.

Thus far, the congressman’s actions have been roundly condemned as bullying by someone who is not willing to accept the scientific process. The science community has seen this correctly not as a dispute about one scientific paper, but as an attack on the very foundation of the scientific process, on the confidentiality of peer review, and on the way that federal agencies use the data that their employees produce.

NOAA is right to continue to resist efforts to compromise its scientific process. No one can work in a climate where every email, meeting record or handwritten note could be publicly scrutinized and taken out of context. The scientific community should continue to push back strongly against any further attempts by Rep. Smith to draw out this unfortunate gambit.

CORRECTION: The originally published version of this post identified the Oct. 27 NOAA letter to Chairman Smith as coming from NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan; the letter was actually signed by Coby Dolan, director of the agency’s office of legislative and intergovernmental affairs.