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Is This Congressman's Oversight An Effort To Hobble Climate Science?

About 600 scientists and engineers, including former employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have signed on to letters urging the head of that agency, Kathryn Sullivan, to push back against political interference in science.

For months, Sullivan has been tangling with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, as he investigates a climate change study done by NOAA scientists.

That study, published earlier this year in the journal Science, cast doubt on what some have called a global warming hiatus — the idea that global warming has slowed in the past two decades.

Smith says his actions are a legitimate part of his oversight duties, but scientists call it harassment.

"Please continue to resist this dangerous abuse of congressional oversight power," the scientists and engineers write to Sullivan in a letter they sent to her Monday. "We urge you to continue to stand firm against these bullying tactics in order to protect NOAA scientists' ability to pursue research and publish data and results regardless of how contentious the issue may be."

In a separate letter, also dated Dec. 7, former NOAA scientists urge Sullivan "to continue to resist any unwarranted congressional investigations that would contribute to stifling the scientific process and even intimidate NOAA scientists and their collaborators."

Jim Buizer, a climate change researcher now at the University of Arizona, used to work at NOAA and says he signed on to this letter after Smith issued a subpoena for, among other things, scientists' emails.

"It hits us on a very personal level, but also on a professional one," Buizer says. "It distracts people from the hard work that they're doing. And it's a distraction that doesn't serve the American people very well."

In the past, he says, people have gotten their hands on emails from climate scientists and taken them out of context to cast doubt on the scientists' research.

"We don't have anything to hide; it's just that people don't understand how we work," says Buizer.

These letters are just the latest in a fierce battle of correspondence that's been waged since the climate change study first appeared in June and came to Smith's attention.

"I have a couple of concerns about this study," the congressman tells NPR. "One, the timing is very suspicious, right before the climate meeting in Paris. Two, we have whistleblowers who have told us it was rushed, just to get it out for the Paris meeting, and some scientists felt like it had not been sufficiently vetted."

Smith says his biggest concern was that the study did not include satellite data, which he calls the gold standard. "It didn't seem to me to be a completely honest study," he says.

Asked if the normal peer review process done at a major journal like Sciencewouldn't have flagged any missing information or cherry picking of data, Smith says, "I don't think that Science magazine had access to a whistleblower like we did, saying it had been rushed and had not been sufficiently peer-reviewed."

"And, you know," the congressman adds, " Science magazine may have its own bias. I don't know, maybe they wanted to rush it out before the Paris summit as well."

Jesse Smith, a senior editor at Science, tells NPR that the manuscript was submitted in December of 2014, and the review process was thorough and not rushed at all.

"The process actually took longer than it usually does," the Science editor says, "because we subjected the paper to even more scrutiny than we subject most papers to."

What's more, the editor adds, satellite data is irrelevant to this study, which concerns sea surface temperatures from ships and buoys. "The paper wasn't about satellite measurements of tropospheric temperatures," he notes. "It was about sea surface temperature measurements, which are just one part of a larger picture."

"The scientific process is modern civilization's best means for arriving at reliable truth," says Rush Holt, the executive publisher of Science and head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "And that process should be allowed to work without political meddling," he says. The AAAS is one of eight major scientific associations that recently wrote to the congressman to express concern about the "chilling effect" this inquest could have on science.

Holt, a physicist who spent more than a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from New Jersey, seems especially peeved that Smith issued the subpoena.

"You don't issue subpoenas to scientists for doing their conscientious work," says Holt. "It's certainly an abuse of subpoenas."

Others agree that a congressional subpoena is a big hammer. "People normally think about that related to wrongdoing, to misconduct, to a criminal act, or to corruption," says Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA fisheries scientist now at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I think what he's doing is bullying. I think it's intimidation tactics."

Rosenberg notes that a rule change earlier this year means the chairman of the House science committee can now issue subpoenas more easily, without having to confer with the ranking minority member of the committee.

Currently that's Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who tells NPR that what Lamar Smith is doing "appears to be about politics. I haven't seen much science in it."

In an October letter to the Texas congressman, Johnson notes that "in the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54-year history of the Committee."

When asked about the accusation that he has used his power as chairman to harass scientists whose work he does not like, Smith says he has a responsibility to conduct oversight.

"And when I see government agencies using taxpayers' dollars and not coming up with studies that I think are based upon good data and good evidence and good science," Smith tells NPR, "then I think not only do the people have a right to know that, their representatives in Congress have a right to know that as well."

"In this case, I just simply want the facts to come out," Smith says. "And for reasons I don't understand, NOAA is resisting giving us the information that we requested, which of course would naturally make people suspicious."

NOAA spokesperson Ciaran Clayton says Smith's complaint that NOAA is resisting his requests for information is just not so. "We feel we've provided all the information that the committee needs to understand the issue," says Clayton.

The scientists who did the study briefed committee staffers two times to answer questions about the study's rationale and methodology, Clayton notes. Plus, she says, all of the data is publicly available on the agency's website.

NOAA has a scientific integrity process that allows employees to make anonymous complaints if they feel there's been an abuse of science or scientific misconduct. Clayton says no one has complained about this climate change study.

Right now, NOAA is working to respond to the latest letter from Lamar Smith. Although his previous requests included documents and communications to and from NOAA scientists, Smith has now prioritized getting emails and other documents relating to the study from nonscientist NOAA staffers. He's asked to see the information no later than Dec.15.

Editor's note on Dec. 31: The headline on this post has been edited to remove single quote marks from around the word "oversight." They had been there to signal that Congressional oversight is the issue in dispute. That is true. But they could also be seen as questioning Rep. Smith's position that he is conducting such oversight.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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