Washington, DC — Bush administration rules limiting what U.S. Department of Commerce employees can say to the media or in public do not apply to climate and weather scientists, according to an agency e-mail released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) specialists represented by the National Weather Service Employees Organization do not have to obtain agency pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, concerning any scientific topic deemed “of official interest”.
The November 19, 2008 e-mail from NOAA Deputy Pacific Regional Director Edward Young stated that the Commerce Department policy on “’Public Communication’, issued April 30, 2008, has not yet been implemented within the National Weather Service, and does not affect members of the Bargaining Unit”. That bargaining unit is represented by the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) and includes 4,000 NOAA employees, including forecasters of the National Weather Service, attorneys in NOAA’s Office of General Counsel, hurricane researchers and other meteorological scientists.
Besides those directly affected, the decision is important in that it recognizes that agency communication restrictions are covered by collective bargaining agreements which set working conditions. It also reflects growing concern by federal employee unions in agencies such as NOAA and the Environmental protection Agency about political manipulation, suppression or screening of agency scientific and technical work.
“While this is a welcome development, it leaves an odd situation where climate scientists can speak but marine scientists and oceanographers need permission in advance before answering even basic questions,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The next Secretary of Commerce could end this anomaly by rescinding this policy of prior restraint and letting all of NOAA’s scientists speak freely.”
The current Commerce “Public Communications” policy repealed a more liberal “open science” policy that NOAA had adopted in February 2006. This new policy forbids Commerce staff 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 be submitted to and approved by the designated “head of the operating unit” “before the communication occurs”; 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.”
The Obama campaign had pledged to embrace principles of transparent government as well as to end political interference with official science. “President Obama could outlaw gag orders such as these as a matter or policy or by Executive Order,” Ruch added. “We hope that these actions take place early in his administration.”