Remembering Rick Piltz, Scientific Integrity Advocate

, , former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | October 20, 2014, 3:10 pm EDT
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Rick Piltz, founder of Climate Science Watch and revered whistleblower who exposed political interference in climate science, succumbed to cancer over the weekend. He took a brave and unusual path from civil servant to scientific integrity advocate and climate activist that inspired many of us. His memory will continue to motivate me and many others to work tirelessly for a better world where science more freely informs public policy.

I first met Rick in 2005. A senior official with the U.S. Global Change Research Program, he had grown tired of working in an environment under the Bush administration where political interference in the work of climate scientists had become routine. He resigned from government service and the Government Accountability Project agreed to represent him as a whistleblower.

He came to the UCS offices to talk about everything he knew about the politicization of climate science. Quite frankly, the amount of information he shared exhausted me. We talked for more than three hours. He was completely open with what he knew, and very interested in exploring strategies for bringing attention to what was happening.

photo of Rick Piltz testifying before Congress

Tireless whistleblower and scientific integrity advocate Rick Piltz testifies at a January 2007 congressional hearing on political interference in climate science. Former UCS Senior Scientist Francesca Grifo also testified at the hearing, where UCS released a survey of government climate scientists showing pervasive political pressures on their work. Screengrab from C-SPAN.

Rick became a minor celebrity when Andy Revkin at the New York Times published an article based on documents Rick provided showing that a high-ranking Bush administration official and former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist had rewritten government scientific reports to downplay the link between human activity and climate change. The official, Phil Cooney, quickly left the administration to work for ExxonMobil. (Yup, sometimes you can’t even make this stuff up).

“Rick was one of the few people brave enough to speak on the record about the distortion and suppression of climate science during the Bush administration despite the possible repercussions for him and his work,” said UCS senior writer Seth Shulman, who investigated many cases of the abuse of science at the time. “Speaking out the way he did still took a lot of courage because he was uncertain about his future in the field. I greatly admired him for that.”

Indeed, it takes a ton of courage to become a whistleblower. You risk your livelihood and often take a big financial hit. You (and your family) often become subject to attacks by powerful interests. You may enjoy some protection from retribution, but even then, the deck is often stacked against you. But Rick soldiered on.

“Rick was a public servant in the truest sense, both while he was in the government and after he made the principled decision to resign and to start up Climate Science Watch,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for UCS.

For the next decade, Climate Science Watch paid close attention to the use and misuse of science in government and attacks on climate science and scientists. I knew that whenever I called on Rick, the answer would be an enthusiastic YES. He helped us conceptualize the extensive UCS report on political interference in climate science that was the subject of the House Committee on Government Reform’s first hearing on the topic in 2007 (and testified at that hearing). He contributed ideas that helped us write Federal Science and the Public Good, which remains our basic blueprint for restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking. He would always be willing to join me to a meeting with an administration official, or meet for coffee to give advice, or send an email to make sure I was aware of a new challenge.

While some deprioritized work on scientific integrity once President Obama took office, Rick knew, personally, that the system that allowed for such rampant abuses of science was still in effect. He did not shy away from criticizing the Obama administration on all kinds of issues when he felt that it was failing to meet the president’s pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” (see here, here, here, here, and here for just a few recent posts).

Rick also saw the danger of attacking the work of climate scientists through criminal statutes and open records requests and public defamation. His organization signed on to numerous letters pushing back on such attacks, and he blogged regularly about developments.

Once he stood up, Rick Piltz never again sat down. He never took his eyes off of the prize, which for him was a world responsive to the consequences of climate change, and a democracy that respected the work of experts who devote their lives to public service.

“He has been such a guiding light for truth as we all have been navigating through calm and stormy waters,” UCS’s Brenda Ekwurzel wrote to me this morning. “I can think of no better way of honoring Rick than by continuing the fight he so bravely met head on.”

Those of us who knew him will always remember his soft-spoken manner, his methodical approach, his wry sense of humor, and his strong sense of justice.

So long, Rick. So many of us will miss you, and do our best to carry your passion forward.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , ,

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  • Tim Donaghy

    Thanks for the eloquent testimonial. I knew Rick through his work with Climate Science Watch and was always impressed by the courage and thoroughness with which he took the plunge into being a whistleblower. He knew exactly what was necessary to make political interference in science into a front page story, and he definitely stuck the landing. His passion for good government, his encyclopedic knowledge of climate policy and his dry sense of humor shone through every time he spoke. He’ll be missed.

  • MikeMacCracken

    Very well said. As I recall, Rick’s first job after graduate school in political science at the University of Wisconsin (during the “interesting” years there) was with the legislative analyst office of the Texas legislature, and he used to tell stories of spending the night trying to figure out for other legislators who the unnamed benefactors were of bills introduced in the late afternoon by then Texas legislator Tom Delay for voting on the next morning. He then came to DC and worked for an energy NGO or two before being hired on to the staff of the House Science Committee under the renowned Congr. George Brown. One of his responsibilities was organizing oversight and related hearings relating to the Global Change Research Act passed in 1989, and one area he really pushed on was for the agencies to get going on the called for national climate change assessment. When he was let go as the Republicans took over the House in the 1994 elections, we were able to hire him into the new Office of the US Global Change Research Program that I had become director of a year earlier. And he became a great ally and supporter of the USGCRP and helped me push for the first assessment that he had been questioning agency leaders about. Though he stayed in his assignment with the Office of the USGCRP rather than joining me in the adjacent National Assessment Coordination Office, he was a constant source of helpful comments and information and a great sounding board for ideas. My assignment ended in September 2002, having stayed on to make sure the US Climate Report for 2002 to the UNFCCC/COP was published and created quite a stir–turmoil that was blamed on Phil Cooney over at CEQ allowing the report’s release and bad publicity (in the view of the Administration) and contributed to the clamping down and editing that later took place, and that Rick endured for a while, but soon after had to more actively resist. He was a very informed, knowledgeable, and committed public servant–and a good friend, and leaves a role we will all have to work hard to help fill.
    Mike MacCracken

    • Michael Halpern

      Thanks so much for this fascinating and complementary comment, Mike. I hadn’t known as much about Rick’s early years. My dad was also at Madison during the interesting years, a time that shaped many an individual. We have to remember the many thousands of people who are working inside government to unearth the truth and check the powerful. The are often given too little credit.

    • MikeMacCracken

      Correction: My memory may have failed–it may well have been the University of Michigan instead of University of Wisconsin.

  • Thanks for this. I’m glad I got to meet Dr. Piltz at least once. I knew he was an ethical man due to his actions, but it was good to learn firsthand that he was also warm, open and kind. He’ll be sorely missed, not only for his work, but also for his strong character.