Washington, DC — Federal climate, weather and marine scientists will be subject to new restrictions as to what they can say to the media or in public, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under rules posted last week, these federal scientists must obtain agency pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, concerning any scientific topic deemed “of official interest.”
On March 29, 2007, the Commerce Department posted a new administrative order governing “Public Communications.” This new order covers the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Commerce’s new order will become effective in 45 days and would repeal a more liberal “open science” policy adopted by NOAA on February 14, 2006.
Although couched in rhetoric about the need for “broad and open dissemination of research results [and] open exchange of scientific ideas,” the new order forbids agency scientists from communicating any relevant information, even if prepared and delivered on their own time as private citizens, which has not been approved by the official chain-of-command:
- Any “fundamental research communication” must “before the communication occurs” be submitted to and approved by the designated “head of the operating unit.” While the directive states that approval may not be withheld “based on policy, budget, or management implications of the research,” it does not define these terms and limits any appeal to within Commerce;
- National Weather Service employees are allowed only “as part of their routine responsibilities to communicate information about the weather to the public”; and
- Scientists must give the Commerce Department at least two weeks “advance notice” of any written, oral or audiovisual presentation prepared on their own time if it “is a matter of official interest to the Department because it relates to Department programs, policies or operations.”
“This ridiculous gag order ignores the First Amendment and disrespects the world-renowned professionals who work within Commerce agencies,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Under this policy, National Weather Service scientists can only give out name, rank, serial number and the temperature.”
The agency rejected a more open policy adopted last year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The new policy also was rushed to print despite an ongoing Commerce Office of Inspector General review of communication policies that was undertaken at congressional request.
While claiming to provide clarity, the new Commerce order gives conflicting directives, on one hand telling scientists that if unsure whether a conclusion has been officially approved “then the researcher must make clear that he or she is representing his or her individual conclusion.” Yet, another part of the order states non-official communications “may not take place or be prepared during working hours.” This conflict means that every scientist who answers an unexpected question at a conference puts his or her career at risk by giving an honest answer.