AAAS board defends climate scientists

Group decries intimidation of researchers, expresses concern that public access to important data may be in jeopardy

“AAAS vigorously opposes attacks on researchers that question their personal and professional integrity or threaten their safety based on displeasure with their scientific conclusions.” This declaration was contained in a 400-word denunciation of attacks on climate scientists and the politicization of climate science that was issued June 29 by the board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The board is not objecting to people voicing opinions about climate data, explains AAAS board member Raymond L. Orbach, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. “This is about an attack on people. And that’s an important distinction,” the physicist emphasizes. The concern, he says, is that these attacks can have “a chilling effect on scientists’ ability to present facts.”

Attacking the messenger can discourage researchers from publishing data they fear might lead to intimidating phone calls — even death threats, he says. And that would jeopardize public access to important data on which public decisionmaking should be based, he argues, “which is just pernicious.”

Orbach, a former Under Secretary at the Department of Energy, notes that while heading its Office of Science during the George W. Bush administration, his office funded plenty of atmospheric studies into global change. “So I’m reasonably familiar with the field.”

Together with marine scientist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington D.C., Orbach introduced a resolution at the May board meeting of the AAAS asking for a formal condemnation of the public intimidation of climate researchers. When I asked him what had triggered the move, he pointed to a succession of events in recent years, including:
— a campaign by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli to obtain access to research data by former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann (now at Penn State). Cuccinelli said he wanted to prosecute Mann or his university under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act for misuse of state funds
— a petition by the American Tradition Institute (ATI) — a “free-market”-based think tank — demanding that the University of Virginia turn over thousands of e-mails and documents written by Mann
— ATI’s January 19, 2011, filing of a Freedom of Information Act request for NASA to hand over documents detailing “whether and how ‘global warming’ activist Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) has complied with applicable federal ethics and financial disclosure laws and regulations, and NASA Rules of Behavior”
— and news accounts of climate researchers receiving death threats in response to reports of their findings.

“Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse,” the AAAS board’s statement observes. “Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial.”

Moreover, Orbach points out, some political candidates now make acceptance or rejection of a human role in climate change as a litmus test of suitability for statewide office. “It got scary” to see climate issues become so political, Orbach says. Intimidating scientists and politicizing their findings should be “anathema,” he charges. “And we hope that the new statement will cause people to think about the need for unbiased, unfettered investigation into issues” — especially those that are as potentially complicated and economically important as climate change.

ATI was quick to respond to the AAAS salvo. In a prepared statement, it argued that “AAAS’s failure to mention the group that invented this series of [data and email] requests, Greenpeace, informs our conclusion that this outrage is selective, and is therefore either feigned or hypocritical. . . . That transparency and ethics laws also apply to scientists who subsist on taxpayer revenue. This they also forgot to mention.” Regarding Michael Mann, ATI said that “if our review of his documents which belong to the taxpayer also happen to exonerate him from the suspicions that have arisen, we will be the first to do so.”

Charges and counter-charges aside, no one should get a death threat or face over intimidation about publishing research findings. Especially when the health of our planet and its stewards are at stake, decisions should be grounded on facts and science not faith and politics. And the more open and transparent data are, the better chance we have of validating — or refuting — them.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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