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Smith and Sullivan

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) questions NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan at a budget hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

After a brief relaxation of hostilities, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration are again at odds over the committee’s demand for internal agency emails.

In October, the committee issued a broad subpoena for all NOAA records, including the emails of staff scientists, that related to an agency analysis refuting the claim global warming had slowed down. Hundreds of scientists came to NOAA’s defense. The Union of Concerned Scientists called Chairman Lamar Smith’s request “harassment” and questioned the implications of the demand for internal communications. A UCS blog called the committee’s actions a witch-hunt. The American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), along with seven other scientific groups, stated, “[S]cientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial.”

Following the uproar, in December, the committee backed down on its request. But on February 22, Chairman Smith wrote NOAA claiming the “slow-pace” of its response “creates the perception that the Agency is deliberately attempting to impede and hinder the Committee’s oversight.” He then broadened the search parameters for internal communications to include the words “climate,” “change,” “temperature,” “ship,” and “president” among others, effectively requiring NOAA staff to review many thousands of agency emails in a search for any of those words.

science subpoena

The controversy lies not in the fact that the committee wants, or is challenging, the study’s data, but that its Draconian request for internal communications is designed to have a chilling effect on the work, and workings, of agency scientists. The data are online, available for expert review — which makes Chairman Smith’s requests for communications between NOAA employees seem all the more like a witch-hunt. Smith defended his actions stating that “whistleblowers” had said that NOAA rushed publication of the paper without first obtaining internal approval. He and the committee have maintained that no information regarding the position or identify of the whistleblowers will be forthcoming.

NOAA Communications Director Ciaran Clayton told the Washington Post:

The notion that this paper was rushed to publication is false. In December 2014, the co-authors of the study submitted their findings to Science — a leading scientific journal.  Following a rigorous peer review process, which included two rounds of revisions to ensure the credibility of the data and methodologies used, Science informed the authors that the paper would be published in June.

On March 16, 2016, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan testified before a committee budget hearing. Rather than focus on the agency’s proposed 2017 funding, Chairman Smith used the opportunity to launch into a climate debate with Sullivan stating NOAA should be focused on weather, accusing the agency of “hyping a climate change agenda” and proclaiming “climate alarmism often takes priority at NOAA.” Sullivan has still not fully complied with Smith’s subpoenas, which she says are “too broad”. Smith continues to assert that the study published in Science was rushed to publication. However, Science has told NPR that the study was subjected to extra oversight and scrutiny given the controversy surrounding the topic.

To the scientific community, the committee’s agenda is clear. Smith has taken an unshakable position that climate change is “science fiction” and his committee has reposted an Investor’s Business Daily article on its website questioning NOAA’s integrity and suggesting the agency is engaged in “junk science” and fraud. A better question is whether the committee is wasting taxpayers’ money to defend the lie that climate change is a fallacy and to obstruct new agency findings that climate change is continuing.

Robust debate is healthy for the advancement of science. But the tactics employed by the Committee on Science, Space and Technology are beyond the realm of debate. If science is to continue its unbiased pursuit of truth, it should be through a forum of healthy, respectful discussion and deliberation, far from the intrusive hand of politically motivated congressional committees.

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Bethany Ordonez will graduate from the Pace Masters in Environmental Science program this May. She holds a BS in biology from Mercy College and is originally from South Africa. Bethany is interested in the marine environment, especially the effects of climate change on oceans, such as ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures.