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Press Releases Controlled for Political, Not Scientific, Importance

Public affairs officials at federal agencies traditionally choose which research results to highlight in official press releases based on whether the research is scientifically significant or of interest to the general public. However, in recent years officials at NASA and NOAA have held back from publicizing significant research in the field of climate change science to avoid highlighting research that contradicts the administration’s policies.1

At NOAA and the Department of Commerce, a flow chart  obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) details the extremely complicated process by which a press release is submitted, reviewed, and approved—or not—by several layers of bureaucracy. The chart makes clear how each press release must pass review by several entities that primarily serve political and public relations functions. Scientists do not decide which research ultimately receives an official press release, nor do they have a final review to ensure scientific accuracy of the release.

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One NOAA scientist recalls attempting in 2001 to raise media attention for a published paper that determined, from a comparison of climate models and empirical data, the influence of human activities on the warming of Earth’s oceans. At first, the scientist said, there was going to be a media advisory and press conference to highlight the important findings, but it “kept getting degraded until it was canceled.” The scientist contrasted this experience under the Bush administration with work done on a “heat index” in the late 1990s, when then-Vice President Al Gore, on behalf of the Clinton administration, actively helped to publicize the results.2 

Another NOAA scientist, Dr. Richard Wetherald, encountered similar difficulties publicizing scientific findings. The following excerpts are from a September 26, 2002, email conversation between NOAA public affairs staffer Jana Goldman and Wetherald, a research meteorologist at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL). The conversation, obtained through a FOIA request, refers to an article Wetherald co-authored on a study of how the world’s water cycles will change with global warming.

Wetherald: “…I have not bothered to write a draft NOAA press release since the last time it was turned down by the Dept. of Commerce. Apparently at that time, greenhouse or global warming papers were considered to be the literary equivalent of ‘persona non grata’ by the current administration. I assume that this is still the case? I don’t want to waste both of our times if it is. Anyway, here is the summary for your information. Please let me know if this policy has changed…”

Goldman: “…What I think I may do is pass the abstract along downtown and see what they think. I agree with you, the attitude seems to have changed regarding climate change, but let’s also avoid doing unnecessary work if it’s not going to go anywhere…”

 

Wetherald: “…That sounds like a sensible idea. If by some miracle, you can use it as a NOAA press release, this would be fine as long as it contains the basic conclusions in the summary that I sent. I will certainly help out if it comes to that…”

 

Goldman: “…I sent the abstract down to see if it would fly -- if so, we would have to draft a release, but at least we would know that it would go through and our work would not be in vain…”3 

 

The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported that Wetherald has had three proposed press releases rejected—beginning with an early 2001 publication regarding “committed warming and its implications” in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters. He was told that his most recent 2004 press release, accompanying the publication of another global warming paper, was rejected by officials at the Department of Commerce. “Obviously, the papers had a message, and it was not what they wanted it to be,” Dr. Wetherald stated in the Star-Ledger article. “A decision was made at a high level not to let it out.”4 

 

Scientists at agencies other than NOAA also encountered difficulties with press release approval. Dr. Christopher Milly, a United States Geological Survey (USGS) research hydrologist who studies the interaction of climate with the global water cycle, reported two incidents of interference with press releases. The first case was in 2002 when a USGS press officer indicated that the subject matter of a press release (the increased risk of extreme flooding due to global warming) was considered “sensitive” and could cause problems at the White House. The Department of the Interior (USGS’ parent agency) declined to issue the release, arguing that one would probably be released by Nature, the journal that published the research paper on this subject. In fact, while Nature did issue a release, its decision to do so only occurred after the Department of the Interior refused to do so.

 

The second case reported by Milly was in November 2005, when a press release on the impact of climate change in water supply modeling went out only after a public affairs officer altered the text, without Milly’s knowledge, and removed words such as “global warming,” leaving the scientific content intact but possibly lowering its visibility. Milly did not know what officials made the ultimate decisions, but said that others told him that personnel in the USGS public affairs department considered climate change and energy to be “hot-button” issues for the Bush administration, and that reference to such sensitive issues, outside of scientific papers, are thus handled and edited  “with care.”5 

 

A NASA scientist spoke of a press release written by a public affairs officer (PAO) that was ready to be posted to the NASA website. However, when the press release, which was about research into the impact of climate-related flooding on agriculture, was sent for a higher level of review, it was rejected without explanation. The scientist, believing the results to be significant, had to ask high-level colleagues to lobby to get the release approved.6 

 

In mid-September 2004, Dr. Drew Shindell, an ozone specialist and NASA climatologist, submitted a press release to the Goddard Space Flight Center public affairs office to announce the publication of a paper on climate change in Antarctica. Shindell and the PAO together suggested the title “Cool Antarctica may warm rapidly this century, study finds.” NASA headquarters, on reviewing the draft, asked that the title be “softened.” Headquarters also rejected the next suggestion that Dr. Shindell and the PAO offered—“NASA Scientists expect temperature flip-flop at the Antarctic”—and instead, over Shindell’s objections, titled it “Scientists predict Antarctic climate changes.” Not surprisingly, Shindell commented, the press release generated relatively little media interest.7  When Shindell inquired about the delays and alterations to the release, press officers responded that releases were being delayed because two political appointees and the White House were now reviewing all climate related press releases.8 

 

In testimony at a 2007 House Oversight Committee hearing on Political Influence on Government Climate Change Scientists, Shindell testified that political control of press releases robs policymakers of information needed to make informed decisions. Shindell testified that “these restrictions were not imposed on our NASA colleagues in Space Science, or even those in areas of Earth Science other than climate change…Suppression of results demonstrating ever-increasing scientific knowledge of the principles underlying global warming, of the data demonstrating its rapidity and its consequences, and exaggeration of the remaining scientific uncertainties, certainly gave the appearance that scientific evidence that could undermine a rationale for inaction on climate change was being targeted.”9

 


1. This page contains material excerpted from the 2007 report Atmosphere of Pressure by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project.

2. Anonymous NOAA scientist. 2006. Interview with Tarek Maassarani, April 13.  Name withheld upon request.

3. Goldman, J. 2002.  AGU Journal Highlight.  Email to Richard Wetherald, research meteorologist at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, September 26.  Jana Goldman is a public affairs officer at NOAA.  Received via FOIA request on August 9, 2006.

4.  MacPherson, K. 2006. Tempest brews in weather think tank.  Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), October 1.

5.  Milly, C. 2006.  Interview with Tarek Maassarani, May 5.  Christopher Milly is a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

6.  Anonymous NASA scientist. 2006.  Interview with Jennifer Freeman, June 27.  Name withheld upon request.

7.  Shindell, D. 2006. Email interview with Tarek Maassarani, May 31.  Drew Shindell is a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).

8.  Shindell, D. 2007. Testimony at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Political Influence on Government Climate Change Scientists, January 30.  Accessed March 9, 2007.

9.  Ibid.

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