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Union of Concerned Scientists response to Department of Commerce media policy

The ability of federal climate scientists to speak freely and truthfully about their research with the media and the public has been severely compromised in recent years.  Scientists have been censored, scientific reports have been altered, and scientific results have been misrepresented.

Scientists working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency under the Department of Commerce (DOC), have been particularly impacted by these restrictive communications policies and practices.

On March 29, 2007, the DOC released an updated media policy that aims to improve the accuracy of departmental scientific communication and protect the first amendment rights of federal scientists.

The prohibition of certain restrictive media practices and the stated commitment to scientific openness exhibited by the new policy are welcome steps in the right direction. However, while the policy represents an improvement in tone, it is not strong enough to curb political interference in science.

An analysis by UCS and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) finds serious deficiencies in the new media policy and recommends the following major changes be made:

  • The policy should reaffirm the constitutional right of federal scientists to speak publicly about any topic provided they clearly state that their personal views do not reflect official government policy. The policy does not clearly endorse such a 'personal views exception,' and instead implements a complex and confusing approval system where scientists must first clear all public communications (even for views made in a scientist's private capacity) with the public affairs office.
  • The policy should give DOC scientists the 'right of final review' of any documents that draw upon their technical expertise to ensure that scientific accuracy has been maintained. 
  • The policy should clearly spell-out employees rights under the Whistleblower Protection Act and other legal guarantees of free speech.

GAP and UCS sent a detailed critique of the policy to DOC Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, calling upon the Department to use the 45 day implementation period to correct the problems with this media policy. Use the links in the box above to read the critique and explore the issue of political interference in climate science.

 

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