Mad Science
Scientists prove susceptible to corruption, like everyone else
by Kit Smith

On Sunday, January 30th, the New York Times carried a front-page story titled “Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him.” The Oregonian ran two articles, one on the 23rd of January and another on the 30th, about an effort by professors at Oregon State University (OSU) to block publication of a research study by one of their own graduate students. The study concluded that logging after wildfires is harmful to forest growth (OSU receives about 10 percent of its funding from a tax on logging).

These are only two examples of a troubling trend. Will science survive its own politicization, or will it be destroyed by a new breed of administrators who seem to silence scientists for sport, invoking primal fear and causing them to turn against each other?

James E. Hansen directs efforts to simulate the global climate on computers at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, of which he is director. He reported to NYT writer Andrew Revkin that, after giving a lecture in December which included a call for prompt reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, NASA administrators have been monitoring all public media interaction he has, including postings on the Goddard website. Why this made him feel singled out given the Bush administration’s recently exposed spy program is a bit uncertain. (They’re spying on all of us, okay? You’re not special Dr. Hansen.)

Hansen issued a similar public complaint in October 2004, after giving a lecture at the University of Iowa. Yes, Iowa not only has a university, but offers the Distinguished Public Lecture Series at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The lecture’s title, “Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: A Discussion of Humanity’s Faustian Climate Bargain and the Payments Coming Due,” reveals Dr. Hansen’s strong opinion about this phenomenon.

Dr. Hansen feels that informing the public about the dangers of global warming is an absolute obligation for him as a federal scientist, and doubly so as part of an organization whose mission statement includes “to protect our home planet.” The current administration’s policy is to voluntarily slow increases in greenhouse gas emissions. “Volunteer emissions reducers” will probably be about as effective as the average volunteer fire department, and without all the good food and picnics. Anyway, after Hansen’s speech, the Times reports, officials at NASA received multiple phone calls from public affairs officers. They warned of “dire consequences” should such statements continue.

According to the Times article, it’s not just NASA. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have also been prevented from speaking with reporters, subject to approval by administrators. This screening is a relatively recent requirement, having taken effect only within the past five years. Many science writers and environmental journalists report having increasing difficulty getting interviews from the EPA.

NASA claims the restrictions Hansen is protesting apply to all personnel. Government scientists are to stick to science, and not make conjecture about policy. Granted, there is some legitimacy to monitoring what an agency’s staff members say to reporters, as well as some pragmatism. The beliefs of a scientist or even a group of scientists do not always reflect those of the organization they work for. The general consensus among reporters who have interviewed him, however, is that Dr. Hansen always makes it clear that his opinions are his own, and that he is not speaking for NASA.

Additionally shady is evidence that scientists whose opinions mesh with that at the administration are not kept under such constraints. Again taken from the New York Times is the example of Dr. Indur Goklany of the Interior Department. This electrical engineer has proposed for years that it may ultimately be better, for economic reasons, not to force cuts in greenhouse gases. He thinks economic prosperity would in turn allow countries to devise ways of adapting to and exploiting climate change. Like putting it in tight fitting jeans and using it to sell cars and cell phones. Dr. Goklany reported to the Times that he was never asked, even during the greenhouse gas reduction-friendly Clinton administration, to cease his extracurricular activities, so long as he disassociated his views from those of the Department.

Though the validity of climate strategy coming from an electrical engineer can certainly be questioned, letting Dr. Goklany make his views public is in keeping with the spirit of the scientific process. When Daniel Donato’s OSU professors got in touch with editors of Science magazine, requesting that his report not be published, they were squelching not only Donato’s article, but one of the key forces of scientific knowledge.

Data from any given study may be interpreted differently by different scientists, and furthermore how much conjecture can be made—how wide conclusions can be drawn—based on a study or group of studies is often a point of contention. It is worth noting that the Dean of the College of Forestry, Hal Salwasser, was not among those trying to suppress the anti-logging study, despite having testified in favor of a federal bill that will speed up logging after fires. Though Donato reportedly came to sweeping conclusions about his research that seem unjustified, Salwasser noted that other researchers can challenge and debate those conclusions. This is as things should be in the scientific community.

Attempting to block publication of a valid research study constitutes an attack on academic freedom. Most abhorrent is that the attack came from the inside.

Donato’s work contradicted an earlier report by veteran OSU profs. Where Donato’s research says cutting trees after wildfires is destructive, inhibiting recovery and new tree growth, the professors’ study concluded that logging after a fire could help a forest to recover. The professors’ report was highly influential, cited by the U.S. Forest Service when they expanded their logging pans. This agency joined the nine OSU professors who petitioned Science to withhold publication of Donato’s findings. Kudos to Science for publishing the study anyway.

Fixes have been proposed for these specific problems. NASA, along with NOAA and the EPA, should allow their staff scientists free rein outside the facilities, so long as the individuals make a clear distinction between the agencies they work for and their own personal views. Oregon should restructure its revenue so that logging taxes go to general funds and the university is funded through general channels. But the situation speaks of a greater crisis than a paranoid administration and a co-opted college.

Scientific information, and by extension knowledge, has become politically vulnerable. The Bush administration has consistently abused science, law, and democratic processes to forge bad public policy. It can no longer be ignored that political interference is a serious problem within the scientific community.

It has become the responsibility of scientists to maintain integrity in their field. This means allowing for the presentation of conflicting views and disparate interpretations of data in a public forum. This means coming down from the ivory tower and learning to be street fighting men (and women) before the tower is burned to the ground. This means standing up in those streets and refusing to move, stating loudly and freely that science is grounded in seeking truth through standardized methods, and shouldn’t be bent to the will of the powerful.

English biologist Thomas Huxley said that science is “rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.” Scientists must be this way also.

 


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