Washington, DC — A prominent University of Alaska marine scientist has lost his federal grant and his office because he was an “advocate” for environmental protection, according to a ruling released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In its decision, the university cited pressure from the grant agency, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, to silence the scientist’s public critique of oil industry Arctic development plans as a key rationale for its decision.
Professor Rick Steiner, a noted marine conservation specialist, has lost any further NOAA Sea Grant funding and his office is being moved to place him under closer university “supervision.” The faculty union, United Academics, had filed a grievance on Prof. Steiner’s behalf protesting these actions as a violation of university-guaranteed academic freedom and other institutional policies.
On October 15, 2009, university counsel representing President Mark Hamilton issued a final rejection of the grievance, contending that “When a funding agency expresses concern in the context of some public controversy” it is a legitimate basis for corrective action and academic freedom was not infringed so long as Prof. Steiner remained able to speak.
“President Hamilton seems to believe that his faculty still enjoys academic freedom even while he permits imposition of penalties for views simply because they conflict with the university’s financial backers – big oil,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This decision suggests that the University of Alaska is to academic freedom what Burma is to open political debate.”
“This decision undermines the University’s credibility as a place where ideas can be developed and discussed without fear of reprisal,” said Professor Steiner, noting that the University of Alaska depends upon oil revenue for much of its support. “In my 30 years here, I have never known of anyone in the University who experienced the slightest problem from saying things supportive of industry.”
While the ultimate decision to cut off Sea Grant funding was up to the university, the decision makes it clear that complaints from NOAA officials about Prof. Steiner’s environmental advocacy spurred it to rein him in. In a May 22, 2009 letter to PEER about the case, Assistant Administrator Richard Spinrad reiterated the anti-advocacy policy for grantees (“We do not take positions on issues of public debate”), so as to not endanger “credibility” of researchers. Nonetheless, he insisted “We do not ‘gag’ scientists.”
“NOAA’s stance is that by accepting one of its grants a scientist may not say, for example, that clean water is healthier than polluted water or that action by Shell or British Petroleum may create environmental peril,” said Ruch. PEER is preparing a formal rulemaking petition later this month for submission to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco seeking clarification of the Sea Grant no-advocacy guidance. “Receipt of a federal grant should not be cause for suspending First Amendment free expression rights or for cancelling the moral obligation of scientists to speak up to protect our resources.”
The Steiner case is being compared by faculty members to “the Firecracker Boys” episode of 50 years ago at the University of Alaska. In that case, university scientists working under federal grants were fired after the funding agency complained of their public advocacy. The scientists had publicized the likely environmental consequences of allowing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to excavate a new harbor in Arctic Alaska using thermonuclear bombs. Thirty years later, the university recognized its error and awarded the scientists honorary doctorate degrees.