News & Views item - February 2006

 

 

The Gag Here and There -- The Washington Times -- Nature -- Science. (February 18, 2006)

        The censoring of CSIRO scientists has been syndicated by Agence France-Presse and among the newspapers picking up the story is The Washington [DC]Times.

Three scientists who worked at the Australian science agency [CSIRO]said this week that they were pressured to keep their views on climate change to themselves to avoid clashing with government policy.

The paper goes on to link the claims of  former CSIRO climate director Graeme Pearman, Barney Foran, and Barrie Pittock with one of NASA's most eminent climate researchers, James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York who claims he was censored by NASA's public affairs office.

 

Just to outline the specifics, Graeme Pearman told ABC television that he was censored "at least half a dozen times" during his final year with CSIRO, but never directly by the government. "I was told I couldn't say anything that indicated that I disagreed with government policy, and I presume that meant federal government policy," and added that the organisation was "enormously frightened" of interpretations of his work that might be construed as being critical of government policy.

 

CSIRO environment executive, Steve Morton said he ordered Mr. Pearman not to participate in one discussion "which clearly had policy prescriptions in it. I asked him not to talk about the targets and the time frame in which greenhouse-gas reductions should be made."

 

Morton has also told The Canberra Times that the then Minister for Science, Peter McGauran warned him "to think carefully" about his membership of the Wentworth Group.

 

Morton verified the veracity of the report and amplified on it during Senate Estimates on February 15, despite an attempt by Liberal Senator Amanda Vanstone, riding shotgun, to cut short questioning by  Labor's Penny Wong.

 

Barney Foran, who recently retired from CSIRO, said he had been asked by Prime Minister John Howard's office not to discuss ethanol as part of his work on biofuels while Barrie Pittock, said he was asked to remove sensitive information about the impact of climate change from a government publication. "I was asked to talk about the science of climate change, the impacts and the possible adaptations, but I was expressly told not to talk about ... how you might reduce greenhouse gases."

 

In the case of NASA's James Hansen his run in with its public affairs office has made the editorial pages of both Nature and Science with Science's Editor in Chief Donald Kennedy firing off a fusillade with both barrels.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are among the most popular and scientifically sophisticated agencies in the U.S. government. Not only do they do good science, they do dramatic, risky, and even romantic things...

 

In this space a month ago, I described some of the research that supports a relationship between hurricane intensity and increased water temperatures... hurricane intensity has increased with oceanic surface temperatures over the past 30 years. Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has clarified and explained the thermodynamic basis for these observations.

 

Yet a NOAA Web site denies any relationship between global climate change and hurricane strength... [and] the U.S. Department of Commerce (the executive agency that NOAA is part of) has ordered [NOAA scientists who may agree with Emanuel] not to speak to reporters or present papers at meetings without departmental review and approval.

 

[But] things are even worse at NASA [who attempted] to put a gag on James Hansen, director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, after a talk he gave at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December 2005... [H]e pointed out that the climate change signal is now so strong... that the voluntary measures proposed by the administration are likely to be inadequate.

 

Hansen was told there would be "dire consequences" if such statements continued.

 

[t]his event may establish a new high-water mark for bureaucratic stupidity. First, Hansen's views on this general subject have long been widely available... Second, Hansen's history shows that he just won't be intimidated, and he has predictably told the [New York]Times that he will ignore the restrictions.

According to Nature "[M]ore evidence of press releases being doctored for political ends at the space agency [NASA] is likely to emerge, disturbing everyone who values the free flow of scientific information to the public.

 

But Nature then moves to a parallel issue the "increasingly adversarial relationship that is developing between NASA and the research community. The sour mood was apparent at last month's American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC, when NASA's science chief Mary Cleave told assembled scientists that her most important "stakeholders" were the White House and Congress. Cleave's real (if unintentional) message was clear: don't expect NASA to advocate research, as we work for other interests.

    "NASA is undergoing a historic shift in direction without consulting scientists or paying attention to their advice. Projects with great appeal to scientists and to the public including the search for planets around other stars and the study of dark energy are being abandoned so that NASA can return astronauts to the moon half a century after the Apollo landings."

 

The behaviour of CSIRO's administrators is remarkably analogous to NASA's both in the way it is determining its priorities and the intimidation of its researchers.

 

Oh, yes, at what might pass for black comic relief were matters not so serious, The Canberra Times yesterday published a letter over the signature of  Julie Bishop MP, Minister for Education Science and Training.

 

 

Perhaps it would have been wise, not to say reasonable, before Ms Bishop went off half-cocked, if she had taken the time to speak with scientists currently employed by CSIRO (on a one-on-one basis), and recently associated with CSIRO to allow her to get first hand what and why they made the statements they have. She might have taken time to read Dr. Morton's 'testimony' to this week's Senate Estimates and compare and contrast it with Dr Sandland's obfuscation. Or perhaps she is just too busy as Minister for Education, Science and Training to make the time.

 

Quoting irrelevant statistics and bald sums which amount to half truths is reminiscent of her predecessor.

 

Nice having you aboard,  Ms Bishop.