It’s getting hot in here. A dispute between the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a climate change paper published this summer is escalating. The latest salvos include a second letter from Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan seeking internal communications and documents authored by NOAA employees and a letter from the American Meteorological Society condemning Smith’s demands and warning about its implications for all federally funded research.
The quarrel began with a paper by NOAA scientists published 5 June in Science that revised historical atmosphere and ocean temperature data records found to have been poorly calibrated. In 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had noted that the temperature data seemed to suggest that global warming had slowed down beginning around 1998. But the Science paper showed that apparent slowdown in global warming vanished when the data were corrected to account for various sources of bias.
That paper immediately caught Smith’s attention, triggering multiple committee requests for data and methodologies related to the study. NOAA told the committee that the findings were already publicly available and met twice with committee staff to brief them on the results.
But that response didn’t satisfy Smith. On 13 October, he subpoenaed all of NOAA’s internal emails related to the paper, asking for the information by 27 October. In response, the committee’s Democrats wrote to Smith on 23 October, noting that the subpoena “appears to be furthering a fishing expedition” and saying that it oversteps the committee’s bounds, as the paper is a research study and not a policy decision. House Republican leadership this year had given Smith the authority to issue subpoenas without the consent of the minority party.
NOAA responded to the subpoena on 27 October, citing still more studies but declining to turn over any emails or other internal communications. “We have endeavored over the past few months to answer all of the Committee’s questions about the data,” the letter stated.
Smith disagrees, and thinks that NOAA is hiding something. “The American people have every right to be suspicious when NOAA alters data to get the politically correct results they want and then refuses to reveal how those decisions were made. NOAA needs to come clean,” he said in a statement issued 27 October.
Yesterday, the science committee chairman reiterated his demands for NOAA internal communications. Smith also asked Sullivan for information about “NOAA’s document production process,” including not only the locations and contents of internal documents related to the study, but also whether any were redacted and sent to either the White House or to a federal agency.
To scientists, this is beginning to feel all too familiar. In 2013, the science committee subpoenaed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over communications related to a controversial study on the health effects of air pollution known as the Harvard Six Cities Study. After several exchanges, EPA concluded in March 2014 that the agency had complied as fully as it was able to with the requests for data. This March, the House passed legislation introduced by Smith, called the Secret Science Reform Act, which would require EPA to make policy based only on publicly available data. In April, a Senate panel adopted a similar bill (S. 544), which faces a veto threat from the White House.
Some research advocates believe that the NOAA subpoena for internal emails sets an even more dangerous precedent than the EPA one because it would extend congressional reach beyond an agency’s regulatory activities. “What’s next, demanding scribbles on cocktail napkins?” says Andrew Rosenberg, a fisheries scientist who was deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service during the Clinton administration and is now with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “This is not a case of people saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t give you the data.’ They’re saying, ‘You have the data,’” he says.
A letter by the American Meteorological Society to Smith, issued yesterday, echoes Rosenberg’s concerns about the negative message being sent to U.S. scientists. “Singling out specific research studies, and implicitly questioning the integrity of the researchers conducting those studies, can be viewed as a form of intimidation that could deter scientists from freely carrying out research on important national challenges,” the letter states. “The advancement of science depends on investigators having the freedom to carry out research objectively and without the fear of threats or intimidation whether or not their results are expedient or popular.”