Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will continue to forbid scientists who receive its marine research grants from speaking out on matters of public concern even as private citizens, according to its denial of a rulemaking petition filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, academics must avoid advocacy “at all costs” or risk being stripped of NOAA Sea Grant funding, under official guidance that remains in effect.
The PEER petition was sparked by a case in which 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. The marine scientist, Professor Rick Steiner, came under attack by NOAA officials for speaking at a press conference protesting a pro-oil industry slant in a Sea Grant conference on proposed petroleum development in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
PEER filed a rulemaking petition with NOAA on December 17, 2009 shortly after Prof. Steiner’s Sea Grant funding was stripped. In a decision dated June 1, 2011 (but actually delivered more than three weeks later), NOAA declined to clarify its policy, contending the guidelines were “not a binding legal requirement” even though NOAA sought to have the restriction enforced in the Steiner case.
Curiously, earlier this month NOAA circulated a draft Scientific Integrity Policy affirming the ability of its employees to express “personal” viewpoints in their fields but this policy would not apply to grantees. The text of the draft NOAA policy reads: “NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints within their area of professional expertise that extend beyond science to incorporate personal opinion but must make clear they are presenting their individual opinions when doing so…”
“Rather than taking this opportunity to clarify its support for academic freedom, NOAA has chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a legalism,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that it took NOAA over 18 months to issue a curt denial of the PEER petition, a delay which officials ascribed to the need to coordinate with its emerging Scientific Integrity Policy. “It makes no sense that NOAA agency scientists would be free to speak out but academic scientists who receive NOAA Sea Grants are not.”
Nonetheless, NOAA officials have consistently defended their position that academic grantees should not take “positions on issues of public debate.” In the Steiner case, a top Sea Grant official approached Prof. Steiner’s dean indicating that NOAA had “an issue with Rick Steiner” because “he was acting as an advocate,” adding that “one agent can cause problems nationally” and urging that Prof. Steiner “not be paid with Sea Grant funds.”
“If the U.S. wants to restore ocean health and integrity, then NOAA Sea Grant has to allow and encourage conservation perspectives to be voiced publicly by scientists it funds,” said Steiner, who resigned his professorship over the flap. “The denial of the PEER petition, which had simply asked NOAA to do just that, is a clear sign that NOAA remains clueless as to the desperate state of the ocean and their responsibility for correcting it.”