Federal Research Censorship

CLOUDING CLIMATE-CHANGE SCIENCE This report indicates NASA’s gatekeepers may have engaged in serious meddling in the dissemination of climate-change science. NASA/OIG

NASA’s PR office has “managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public” – at least for some 18 months, beginning in the fall of 2004. That’s the assessment of NASA’s Inspector General’s office, based on a report it issued Monday detailing its investigation into the issue.

The 93-page report also found “a preponderance of the evidence” supported claims of inappropriate political interference by the agency in access to climate-change science. These claims had been made by researchers and career public-affairs people (those who had been doing PR for the agency through multiple administrations).

Some senior NASA PR officials argued that any mistakes or errors in policy during the investigated period were due to their staffs being overworked or having been given poor quality “draft” press releases to work with. The Inspector General’s office, however, found this argument not only lame but also fairly unconvincing.

I commend our readers to check out the report and look at the nature of the issues, which are more numerous and convoluted than I can do justice to here. But I would also argue that what the report documents is hardly unique. Public affairs offices in many federal agencies “manage” reporters’ access to the data and assessments of their scientists on a regular basis. Why they do it likely varies. But the losers, every time, are we the public.

We pay the salaries of these “gatekeepers” of federal information. We also pay for the work performed by the agencies’ scientists and other analysts. And the reason their researchers toil at these labors is to serve our needs. So why do their “handlers” sometimes work so hard to keep us in the dark?

It’s a subject I’ve pondered for decades.

Every reporter has his or her favorite horror stories about which agency or public-affairs officer seems most reliably to impede access. I’ve heard plenty of tales about the Defense Department’s defensiveness, but frankly I’ve had reasonable access to this agency’s information on the few occasions I’ve asked for it. Prying it loose may take longer than I’d like, but ultimately it does seem to become available.

The Food and Drug Administration is quite another story. I almost never get access to an agency scientist who authored a paper nor do I usually receive sought-after comments or explanations of an agency decision. Sometimes I’m told the author I seek has not been cleared to speak with a reporter, but her boss is. When I explain that her boss didn’t do the work, I’ve been told: Too bad. Take what we offer or nothing at all. When I agree to take what I’ve been offered, I’ll usually get a follow-up call to learn that the boss doesn’t really know the material (duh) and what is my deadline anyway? My deadline was, of course yesterday (as I had alerted this person when I first called in).

At least half the time, requests for information – perhaps just a simple statistic or factoid – seem to enter a big black hole. After filing my request, I don’t hear back from anyone in FDA’s news office. EPA’s gatekeepers can be as obstructionist. Some, however, really go the extra mile to find you what you need. In general, the National Institutes of Health, each of which has its own gatekeepers, also seem generally responsive to media inquiries.

Getting information from its sister agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has proven more erratic. Indeed, on one occasion, I was trying to reach a scientist to talk about an infectious outbreak on which he was an expert. The public affairs officer verbally scolded me for attempting to waste this researcher’s time. He had important work to do, I was told, and my questions were a distraction he didn’t need. Hmmmmm. Explaining the policy implications and health threats posed by this infection to several hundred thousand taxpaying readers was a waste of “our employee’s” time. I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ask biochemists to drop their pipettes and come to the phone as soon as I call. I’m willing to wait until they get a free moment. But their speaking to representatives of the public is a price they pay for taking tax dollars not only for their salaries but also for support of their research. Interestingly, the scientists seem to understand this. We reporters certainly do. But the gatekeepers – and, presumably their bosses? All too often they treat us as parasites or investigators out with one of two motives: to waste their time or to make somebody look bad.

Most of us are none of the above. But even if we were, our open democracy would still give us the right to access the information developed by their agency and to speak with those who produce, process, or interpret that information.

Finally, after castigating operations at several agencies, it’s probably only fair that I should also name some that do exemplary jobs. My faves: The Energy Department’s Office of Science media people and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s gatekeepers. But the agency that comes closest in my book to transparency and unrestricted media access: the Agriculture Department. With a ginormous budget, huge workforce, and evolving policies that affect our pocketbooks, environment, and diet, how did this elephantine agency get media access right? Now isn’t that food for thought?

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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