NASA Chief Backs Agency Openness
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NASA Chief Backs Agency Openness
Source: Copyright 2006, New York Times
Date: February 4, 2006
Byline: ANDREW C. REVKIN
A week after NASA's top climate scientist complained that the space
agency's public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements
on global warming, the agency's administrator, Michael D. Griffin,
issued a sharply worded statement yesterday calling for "scientific
openness" throughout the agency.
"It is not the job of public-affairs officers," Dr. Griffin wrote in
an e-mail message to the agency's 19,000 employees, "to alter, filter
or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's
The statement came six days after The New York Times quoted the
scientist, James E. Hansen, as saying he was threatened with "dire
consequences" if he continued to call for prompt action to limit
emissions of heat-trapping gases linked to global warming. He and
intermediaries in the agency's 350-member public-affairs staff said
the warnings came from White House appointees in NASA headquarters.
Other National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists and
public-affairs employees came forward this week to say that beyond
Dr. Hansen's case, there were several other instances in which
political appointees had sought to control the flow of scientific
information from the agency.
They called or e-mailed The Times and sent documents showing that
news releases were delayed or altered to mesh with Bush
In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in
NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add
the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang, according to
an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee
forwarded to The Times.
And in December 2004, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
complained to the agency that he had been pressured to say in a news
release that his oceanic research would help advance the
administration's goal of space exploration.
On Thursday night and Friday, The Times sent some of the documents to
Dr. Griffin and senior public-affairs officials requesting a
While Dr. Griffin did not respond directly, he issued the "statement
of scientific openness" to agency employees, saying, "NASA has always
been, is and will continue to be committed to open scientific and
technical inquiry and dialogue with the public."
Because NASA encompasses a nationwide network of research centers on
everything from cosmology to climate, Dr. Griffin said, some central
coordination was necessary. But he added that changes in the public-
affairs office's procedures "can and will be made," and that a
revised policy would "be disseminated throughout the agency."
Asked if the statement came in response to the new documents and the
furor over Dr. Hansen's complaints, Dr. Griffin's press secretary,
Dean Acosta, replied by e-mail:
"From time to time, the administrator communicates with NASA
employees on policy and issues. Today was one of those days. I hope
this helps. Have a good weekend."
Climate science has been a thorny issue for the administration since
2001, when Mr. Bush abandoned a campaign pledge to restrict power
plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked
to global warming, and said the United States would not join the
Kyoto Protocol, the first climate treaty requiring reductions.
But the accusations of political interference with the language of
news releases and other public information on science go beyond
In interviews this week, more than a dozen public-affairs officials,
along with half a dozen agency scientists, spoke of growing efforts
by political appointees to control the flow of scientific information.
In the months before the 2004 election, according to interviews and
some documents, these appointees sought to review news releases and
to approve or deny news media requests to interview NASA scientists.
Repeatedly that year, public-affairs directors at all of NASA's
science centers were admonished by White House appointees at
headquarters to focus all attention on Mr. Bush's January
2004 "vision" for returning to the Moon and eventually traveling to
Starting early in 2004, directives, almost always transmitted
verbally through a chain of midlevel workers, went out from NASA
headquarters to the agency's far-flung research centers and
institutes saying that all news releases on earth science
developments had to allude to goals set out in Mr. Bush's "vision
statement" for the agency, according to interviews with public-
affairs officials working in headquarters and at three research
Many people working at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.,
and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said that at
the same time, there was a slowdown in these centers' ability to
publish anything related to climate.
Most of these career government employees said they could speak only
on condition of anonymity, saying they feared reprisals. But their
accounts tightly meshed with one another.
One NASA scientist, William Patzert, at the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, confirmed the general tone of the agency that year.
"That was the time when NASA was reorganizing and all of a sudden
earth science disappeared," Mr. Patzert said. "Earth kind of got
relegated to just being one of the 9 or 10 planets. It was ludicrous."
In another incident, on Dec. 2, 2004, the propulsion lab and NASA
headquarters issued a news release describing research on links
between wind patterns and the recent warming of the Indian Ocean.
It included a statement in quotation marks from Tong Lee, a scientist
at the laboratory, saying the analysis could "advance space
exploration" and "may someday prove useful in studying climate
systems on other planets."
But after other scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory queried
Dr. Lee on the statement, he e-mailed public-affairs officers saying
he disavowed the quotation and demanded that the release be taken off
the Web site.
In his e-mail message, Dr. Lee explained that he had cobbled together
the statement on space exploration under "the pressure of the new HQ
requirement for relevance to space exploration" and under a timeline
requiring that NASA "needed something instantly."
A string of strong protests was e-mailed from scientists at the lab
to public-affairs officers shortly after the news release was issued.
It was provided to The Times on Friday by one person involved in the
debate, and its authenticity was confirmed by others.
The press office dropped the quotation from its version of the
release, but in Washington, the NASA headquarters public affairs
office did not.
Dr. Lee declined to be interviewed for this article.
According to other e-mail messages, the flare-up did not stop senior
officials in headquarters from insisting that Mr. Bush's space-
oriented vision continue to be reflected in all earth-science
In the end, the news release with Dr. Lee's disavowed remark remained
up on the NASA headquarters public affairs Web site until The Times
asked about it yesterday. It was removed from the Web at midday.
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