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AAAS Leads Coalition to Protest Climate Science Inquiry

Intersociety NOAA Letter to Chairman Lamar Smith

AAAS and seven other leading scientific organizations on Tuesday expressed "grave concern" about a Congressional inquiry that has unfoundedly called into question the integrity of federal scientists whose research, published in Science, seemed to debunk claims of a global-warming slowdown or "hiatus."

In a letter to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the group acknowledged the importance of appropriate congressional oversight of federally funded research, but emphasized that "scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial."

AAAS CEO Rush Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals, said that AAAS and other scientific organizations have a responsibility to speak out against excessively intrusive inquiries that go beyond the need for due diligence by policymakers. "This kind of political interference in the scientific process ultimately retards the ability of science to provide understanding and to improve people’s lives," Holt said. "To arrive at the greatest benefit for people’s lives, the scientific process must be free from politicization."

Research completed by Thomas Karl and colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used updated and corrected global surface temperature data to dispute the existence of a recent slowdown in the rate of in global warming. In his 4 June Science article, Karl’s team suggested no discernable decrease in the rate of warming between the second half of the 20th century, a period marked by human-caused warming, and the first fifteen years of the 21st century, which some have described as a warming hiatus.

Since the article’s publication, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has sent letters and subpoenas to NOAA, requesting "all documents and communications" related to Karl’s paper in Science. NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, sent a letter to Smith on 20 November, noting that "NOAA has made a concerted and significant effort to answer the Committee’s questions and provide relevant and responsive information." The committee has nonetheless threatened "the use of a compulsory process" if NOAA does not surrender additional records, including e-mails among individual scientists.

AAAS and other science societies emphasized that needlessly intrusive Congressional inquiries can inhibit scientific discovery, particularly if scientists are threatened with legal action. "Science cannot thrive when policymakers — regardless of party affiliation — use policy disagreements as a pretext to attack scientific conclusions without public evidence," the coalition’s letter said. "We are concerned that establishing a practice of inquests directed at federal scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions."

The group noted further that "NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) manages one of the world’s most significant archives of oceanic, atmospheric, and geophysical data."

Independent assessment of scientific results is of course a crucial part of the scientific process, and the coalition encouraged the House committee to use other established mechanisms for assessing technical information, such as advisory reports of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The AAAS intersociety letter was signed also by the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the American Statistical Association, the Ecological Society of America, the Geological Society of America, and the Society for Conservation Biology.

AAAS has protested other cases of scientists being targeted for seemingly ideological reasons. In 2011, for example, the AAAS Board of Directors expressed deep concern over reports of personal attacks on climate scientists. In 2010, the AAAS Board also decried the Virginia Attorney General’s investigation of climate researcher Michael Mann.