ocean buoy

Data collected by satellites, land-based sensors, and NOAA ocean buoys like this are at the heart of the dispute.


Researchers dispute lawmaker’s allegation that NOAA rushed climate study

Scientists are disputing a prominent Republican congressman’s claims that federal climate researchers rushed a study to publication in order to advance the Obama administration’s policies. And yesterday a coalition of science groups released a letter decrying the lawmaker’s efforts to force researchers to release emails and other records surrounding the study.

The moves mark the latest developments in a fight that has brewed for nearly 6 months. Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House science committee, says that whistleblowers within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have complained that their concerns about a major study published by Science this past June were ignored in a “rush to publication.”

The study, led by NOAA researcher Thomas Karl, refuted previous findings that global warming had slowed since 1998. That “pause” has become a chief talking point of skeptics of mainstream climate science, including Smith. And the “timing of [the study’s] release raises concerns that it was expedited to fit the Administration’s aggressive climate agenda,” Smith wrote in an 18 November letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who oversees NOAA.

But scientists directly involved in the paper and studies underpinning it say Smith is off base.

“To claim that there has been a rush to judgment is actually the polar opposite of what has occurred … In many ways, (the study) is playing catch up” with current science, says climate researcher Peter Thorne of Ireland’s Maynooth University, who chairs the International Surface Temperature Initiative (ITSI), a climate data collaboration. He says the findings line up with other work, including research by the British government’s Met Office, a leading source of climate science.

Tom Peterson, an author of the Science paper who retired this past July from his post as principal scientist at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, attributes the ruckus raised by Smith’s committee to unhappiness among climate skeptics. “If the new data set showed that the world was actually cooling … then there wouldn't be any complaints being lodged,” Peterson says.

Timing at issue

In the disputed study, scientists reported that a new analysis of land and ocean temperature measurements showed global temperatures continued to rise during the first part of the 21st century. They attributed much of the previous evidence of a warming slowdown to a failure to fully account for discrepancies in different ways of measuring ocean temperatures. The study also used a more comprehensive set of land temperature records.

In his letter, Smith claims “it appears that NOAA employees raised concerns about the timing and readiness of the study’s release through emails, including several communications just before its publication in April, May, and June of 2015.”

It’s not clear what the exact concerns were, or who raised them. The committee has not released the emails. Committee spokesperson Zachary Kurz declined to offer any details, saying the committee wants to protect whistleblowers’ identities.

The science panel’s top Democrat, meanwhile, has questioned Smith’s allegations. “I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the Karl study was actually submitted to the journal Science in December of 2014—4 months before your alleged whistleblower communications. Science accepted the study for publication in May of 2015,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) wrote to Smith on 19 November. “Moreover, the Karl study relied, in part, upon the work of two previously published studies … These studies were submitted to the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate in December of 2013—nearly one and a half years before your alleged whistleblowers raised their concerns.” (On 23 November, Smith replied with yet another letter to Johnson, accusing her of  “actively working to obstruct the Committee’s oversight efforts.”)

Peterson says he’s not aware of any issues raised in the months just prior to the publication of the Science study. But in 2013 and early 2014—well before the disputed study was submitted to Science—Peterson says there was tension between agency scientists and data managers. The scientists wanted to publish a paper based on a then-new, more comprehensive database of land temperatures from the ITSI. Others in the agency pushed for a delay out of concerns the new ITSI data hadn’t fully met NOAA protocols for releasing such databases to the public. The dispute led to a 6-month delay in the publication of that earlier study in the Geoscience Data Journal, says Peterson. The ITSI data was later used in the Science study.

Letters fly

The political fight, meanwhile, continues to heat up. In a string of letters, Smith has demanded NOAA turn over internal communications between NOAA scientists related to the study. In the newest letter to Pritzker, he raises the possibility of subpoenaing the commerce secretary.

NOAA has responded to the demands by sending scientists to brief the committee, and by pointing out studies and publicly available data underpinning the work. But it has resisted the call for scientists’ emails.

“We really feel that if we open this door to deliberative communications, it will have a chilling effect on what our scientists do every single day,” an agency official familiar with the case told ScienceInsider. Major scientific organizations echoed those concerns in a letter to Smith sent Tuesday. It is signed by the leaders of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), as well leading professional groups in the fields of chemistry, geology, geophysics, meteorology, statistics, and ecology.

The authors object to the continued pursuit of the scientists behind the study without any public evidence of misconduct. “Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial,” the authors wrote. “We are concerned that establishing a practice of inquests directed at federal scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy- relevant scientific questions. “

In a 20 November response to Smith’s latest letter, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said the agency would work with the committee to satisfy its request for information. But she disputed claims that the research had been manipulated for political purposes. And she noted the underlying data were available.

“If the committee doubts the integrity of the study, it has the tools it needs to complete a competing scientific assessment,” she wrote to Smith.