The House Science Committee's Witch Hunt Against NOAA Scientists

October 23, 2015
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

We have long been suspicious of the House Science Committee’s expanded subpoena power. The evidence now demonstrates that the committee is using this new authority not to conduct effective oversight but to harass those who produce robust scientific analysis it refuses to accept.

The committee is harassing individuals, launching an investigation into the actions of a climate scientist who, in the words of my colleague Andrew Rosenberg, had the “temerity to express his views that fossil fuel companies should be held accountable for climate change.” Although subpoenas have not been formally issued, an investigation has begun.

NOAA scientists collecting data

NOAA scientists devote their lives to learning more about the world around us. Attempts by Congress to intimidate and harass them should be met with fierce resistance. Photo: NOAA

The committee is now stepping up its harassment of government agencies. On October 13, the committee subpoenaed nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 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 treasure trove 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.

NOAA was given two weeks to comply.

Some will say that the committee is right, that we should have access to the data. But this, of course, is not about data. The data is already public. In a blistering letter, ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) hit the nail on the head:

However, obtaining all of the data and methods used in this study seemingly was not enough for the majority. You also demanded internal communications by NOAA scientists regarding their scientific research. NOAA, rightfully, has been reluctant to waste their time and resources, not to mention break confidence with their superb research scientists by responding to this demand…

I cannot help but note that your requests in this case echo the tactics of notable climate change skeptics, who frequently submit similar FOIA requests of climate scientists in both the federal government and in state universities. One of the most publicized occasions of harassment occurred when then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and the American Tradition Institute (ATI) sought email communications of former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann.

The original UVA case was even worse, as Mr. Cuccinelli issued Civil Investigative Demands—essentially subpoenas—under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act for this information. At the time, even some climate change skeptics called his move a “witch hunt.” The American Tradition Institute, whose lawyers were recently found to be paid by the coal industry, followed with open records requests for the exact same information.

According to Rep. Johnson, the House Science Committee has made no specific allegations of fraud or scientific misconduct. It’s just fishing, and in the process, harassment.

“You don’t become a biologist to get rich or powerful,” Canadian scientist Jay Fitzsimmons told me in the wake of this week’s Canadian election results. “You become a biologist because you love nature and science. To work under a government that tries to silence scientists is pretty demoralizing.”

The same holds true in the United States. Yet Congress routinely holds the budget hostage, creating uncertainty for agency staff and extensive planning for government shutdowns even when they don’t occur. It consistently asks agencies to do more with fewer resources.

And now, the House Science Committee is on a witch hunt at worst and wasting resources at best. It used to be tobacco and chemical companies that harassed scientists. Increasingly, Congress is picking up the tobacco industry playbook. Who wouldn’t get demoralized? Who wouldn’t feel intimidated?

And perhaps that is what some in Congress want. To protect its scientists and its integrity, and to best serve the American people, NOAA should do everything in its power to resist the committee’s subpoena, and the science community should support them strongly in this effort.