A U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) official's controversial request this summer for scientists to remove "climate change" from research abstracts was ordered by senior national lab managers and was intended to satisfy President Trump's budget request, according to emails obtained by E&E News and confirmed by a lab aide.
The communications, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, suggest officials at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, a national lab funded by DOE, were trying to protect scientists. But the emails also leave unanswered questions about why decisions were made on a Trump plan that was not law.
The senior officials "don't have the authority to say … 'We don't care whether Congress appropriated the funds,'" said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In August, Northeastern University associate professor Jennifer Bowen started a social media frenzy by posting a letter on Facebook from a DOE employee asking for the removal of climate language from her research summary on salt marsh carbon sequestration. Later, additional scientists who received similar DOE requests identified the sender as Ashley Gilbert, a project coordinator at PNNL (Greenwire, Aug. 29).
According to emails sent between 23 August and 25 August, Gilbert acted at the request of Terry Law, a manager of user services at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a user facility at PNNL.
PNNL spokesman Greg Koller said Law was further directed by "EMSL management" but did not name which officials. It was a "team decision," he said.
While the identities of affected scientists were previously known, Lane's directive, the role of senior management and the lab's full reasoning were not.
Law said removing climate language was necessary because President Trump's budget proposal called for the elimination of user access for EMSL research related to "climate feedbacks and carbon."
"Can you look at the 14 abstracts … and find those that talk about global warming or climate change? Then contact the PIs to get different wording? Just explain to them we still have to meet the president budget language restrictions," Law said to Gilbert on 23 August.
The proposals were from 14 grant winners supported by EMSL and the Joint Genome Institute.
There have been no other incidents where PNNL has asked scientists to remove climate change from research proposals.
Gilbert then contacted Bowen, University of Arizona assistant professor Scott Saleska and Concordia University biologist David Walsh, who told E&E News he was asked to scrub language in his abstract on terrestrial organic matter transformations in the Arctic Ocean.
"Holy cow, really?" Walsh wrote to Gilbert when first asked to change wording.
"I understand that you are just doing your job, so I will refrain from comment. I redacted the offensive clause," Bowen wrote to Gilbert.
In an email to Saleska on Aug. 25, Law said the accepted research proposals likely follow the president's budget request but require revision to "eliminate confusion by others who may not understand the nuances" and "falsely assume we're funding research that was specifically eliminated for EMSL." Law did not define who the "others" were.
Once Bowen posted her letter publicly, inquiries from journalists started flowing in to Bowen and Law. Eventually, inquiries were kicked over to DOE headquarters.
In one exchange, Koller floated text to lab officials stating that "we routinely ask folks to modify their abstracts for length, clarity, etc. In this case, it could have been as simple as someone wanting to just highlight the parts of the research that are priorities for this administration."
In an email interview, Koller said there was a misunderstanding about the intent of the revisions, emphasizing that they occurred after proposals were accepted, and were never a condition of funding.
"There have been no other incidents where PNNL has asked scientists to remove climate change from research proposals," he said.
"Asking authors to clarify abstracts isn't unusual in the science community," he said when asked why DOE was basing decisions on a budget request. The revisions were made so scientists could "clarify the focus of their research plans," he added.
The question shouldn't be why PNNL asked for these changes; the question should be who in the administration suggested this prohibition and why.
Rosenberg at the Union of Concerned Scientists said he had never heard of federal officials making such requests based on a president's budget proposal, which is just a suggestion to Congress.
"I think that's crazy," he said.
It didn't help the situation that Congress so rarely meets budget deadlines, but the revisions still should not have happened, he said.
DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said "the short answer is no" when asked whether DOE headquarters directed PNNL managers.
After Bowen's post this summer, Hynes said "there is no departmental-wide policy banning the term 'climate change' from being used in DOE materials. That is completely false." Koller said that includes PNNL.
It's uncertain whether the PNNL incident was an isolated one. When told of the abstracts, one employee at a national lab said he is free to attend conferences on climate change.
Privately, other DOE workers outside PNNL say they've been asked to alter climate change language on documents, but internally.
"There are some program offices discouraging the use of the term, but none of these instances are from political guidance," said one DOE staffer.
Jeff Navin, a former acting chief of staff at DOE in the Obama administration, said the Trump administration created "this mess" by putting the lab in a tough spot.
"They want to fund good science, but they also want to be seen as a team player with the department that funds them. But the question shouldn't be why PNNL asked for these changes; the question should be who in the administration suggested this prohibition and why."
Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net