Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration should not use its marine research grants to prevent recipient scientists from speaking out on matters of “public concern,” according to a rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This fall, the University of Alaska withdrew federal Sea Grant funding from a prominent marine scientist under pressure from NOAA officials who complained about his “advocacy” for marine conservation.
University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton approved the removal of any further NOAA Sea Grant funding for Professor Rick Steiner, a noted marine conservation specialist, in a formal decision on October 15, 2009. The stated basis for the action was that the “funding agency expresses concern in the context of some public controversy” in which Prof. Steiner spoke at a press conference protesting a pro-oil industry slant in a Sea Grant conference on proposed petroleum development Bristol Bay, home to internationally renowned and commercially important salmon and trout runs.
In correspondence with PEER this spring, NOAA officials defended their position citing Sea Grant guidance discouraging researchers from taking “positions on issues of public debate.” PEER is asking NOAA to clarify its guideline so that it does not infringe academic freedom or First Amendment free speech rights of scientists.
In addition, the PEER petition maintains that the NOAA anti-advocacy guidance is hopelessly vague and has been selectively applied to silence oil industry critics while ignoring promotion of industry positions in Sea Grant publications and conferences – a bias that Prof. Steiner was publicly protesting.
“The Sea Grant non-advocacy guidance is clearly being used as a gag rule – in this case to silence someone pointing out the implicit pro-development advocacy in Sea Grant programs,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the current NOAA Administrator, is a former Sea Grant recipient who has voiced the need for scientists to speak out on issues such as climate change and global threats to marine life. “We would hope that the current leadership at NOAA will not repeat the Bush administration’s penchant for seeking political control over the content of scientific work and perspectives.”
Ironically, NOAA now has come forward to express concerns about oil and gas activities in Bristol Bay, mirroring Prof. Steiner’s position that originally drew NOAA’s consternation.
“If we wish to apply the best science, knowledge, and creative ideas in ocean policy, then scientists and educators funded by NOAA grants have to be able to seek and speak their truth, without fear of administrative retribution,” said Prof. Steiner. “That is exactly what the PEER petition requests and they are to be truly commended for their effort.”