Chairman Smith Backs Off on Demands for NOAA Scientists’ Emails – For Now

December 3, 2015 | 11:51 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith’s investigation into the work of NOAA scientists took a new turn Tuesday when he temporarily limited the scope of his demands for communications related to an important global warming study.

NOAA scientists in June published a paper based on updated data showing that there has been no slowdown in global warming activity over the past twenty years, a finding that did not sit well with Chairman Smith. In October, the chairman sent a subpoena to NOAA for seven years of correspondence, peer review comments, notes, and any other recorded materials from anyone who was involved in the study, including scientists and other NOAA staff. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that any member of Congress has subpoenaed scientists’ deliberative correspondence (although a former attorney general of Virginia tried).

As of yesterday, Chairman Smith is demanding the following, my emphasis added:

“All documents and communications by NOAA officials, with the exception of scientists acting in their official capacity, referring or relating to the Karl study, including but not limited to, any official in the Office of the Administrator, Office of Communications and External Affairs, Office of Legislative and Integrovernmental Affairs, and the Office of the Chief Information Officer from January 1, 2014 to present.”

Clearly, the letter from scientific societies expressing “grave concern” about Chairman Smith’s actions made a difference. And seven years of correspondence has been reduced to two. But lest scientists get too comfortable, the chairman reiterated that “this prioritization does not alleviate NOAA’s obligation to respond fully to the Committee’s subpoena.” So he still wants the scientists’ emails, just not now.

Cartoon: UCS/Isabella Bannerman

Cartoon: UCS/Isabella Bannerman

Further, it’s unclear as to how “scientists in their official capacity” should be interpreted. Would emails from scientists be excluded but emails to scientists included? What about scientific communications where public affairs staff were carbon copied?

Remember that this is still an investigation, purportedly, into the integrity of a scientific study. Yet to our knowledge, no complaint has been made under the agency’s scientific integrity policy. By all accounts, the updates that the scientists made to data were routine, and the paper was published using a more through than normal peer review process. Numerous other studies now back up Dr. Karl’s conclusions. But the chairman continues to claim, as recently as Tuesday in a congressional hearing, that NOAA staff “altered data” as if there is some global conspiracy.

It’s important to note how far this investigation has shifted. Earlier this summer, he asked NOAA for data, which NOAA showed was already publicly available. In July, he asked for more data and “documents and communications” among staff involved in conducting or promoting the study. In briefings and letters, NOAA staff provided him with all kinds of data and the ability to ask unlimited questions. In October, he subpoenaed the agency for anything from anyone related to the Karl paper, asserting that agency employees had “altered data.” Then he abandoned the “altered data” claim and said that the Karl paper had been “rushed to publication,” whatever that means. Then he said he had a whistleblower, but couldn’t articulate any substantive allegations of wrongdoing. Next, he argued that all surface temperature data is suspect, and that we should focus on satellite data. Now, he says he doesn’t want scientists’ emails, at least not yet, but returned to making statements about “altered data.”

Whatever comes next, I’m proud of the scientific community for speaking out to defend the scientific process from politicization, and I’m proud of NOAA for standing strong to protect the ability of its researchers to do their jobs without the fear that any email they send will be subject to public scrutiny.