Investigation Reveals Widespread Suppression of Federal Climate Science Research
An investigative report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) has uncovered new evidence of widespread political interference in federal climate science. The report, which includes a survey of hundreds of federal scientists at seven federal agencies and dozens of in-depth interviews, documents a high regard for climate change research but broad interference in communicating scientific results.
"The new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic," said Dr. Francesca Grifo, Director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program. "Tailoring scientific fact for political purposes has become a problem across many federal science agencies."
UCS distributed surveys to 1,600 climate scientists, asking for information about the state of federal climate research. The scientists who responded reported experiencing at least 435 occurrences of political interference in their work over the past five years. Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words "climate change," "global warming," or other similar terms from a variety of communications. Forty-three percent of respondents reported they had perceived or personally experienced changes or edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their scientific findings. And nearly half (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced new or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work.
In contrast, scientists at the independent but federally-funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, who are not federal employees, reported far fewer instances of interference.
The GAP investigation, consisting of 40 in-depth interviews with climate scientists and a review of 2,000 agency documents, revealed that agency media policies often unnecessarily hinder scientists' interaction with the media rather than facilitate public dissemination of their research. For instance, Dr. Drew Shindell, an ozone specialist and NASA climatologist, submitted a press release to announce the publication of a paper on climate change. Press officers significantly watered down language that described his findings, and the new research received little notice by the media.
"Increasingly, scientists and support staff at federal research facilities have been getting signals that climate science is a 'sensitive' topic," said GAP Staff Attorney Tarek Maassarani. "With an issue of this significance, we should be encouraging scientists to tell us what they know about it, and we should listen."
While a large majority of respondents (88 percent) agreed that federal climate research is of generally excellent quality, respondents reported decreasing job satisfaction and a worsening environment for climate science in federal agencies. Two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) said that today's environment for federal government climate research is worse compared to five years ago. At NASA, three in five scientists reported decreased job satisfaction.
"Every day that the government stifles climate science is a day we fail to protect future generations and our planet from the consequences of global warming," said Dr. Grifo. "We need reforms that affirm the right of scientists to fully communicate their research and to blow the whistle when important science is suppressed."
The report urges the federal government to ensure basic scientific freedoms and support scientists in sharing their research with the public, including respecting scientists' constitutional right to speak about any subject in their private lives and allowing scientists to make ultimate decisions about the communication of their research.
"The new Congress must act to prevent the continued interference with science for political purposes," said Maassarani. "A good first step would be for Congress to amend current whistle blower protections to specifically protect the rights of federal government scientists."