Dr. Michael Griffin, who runs NASA, has promised to come up with a plan in the next few weeks for allowing scientists within his agency to speak and write for a general audience about the work they do. He’s acting in response to Dr. James Hanson, a climate expert at NASA, who has complained that the agency’s public affairs people, egged on by political appointees, want to review everything he writes or speaks. They also want to approve his contacts with the media.
Something similar happened in Australia where three scientists have been silenced, and one of them was reprimanded for calling for a reduction in green house gases, the same offense committed by Dr. Hanson. In both instances, government officials explained that scientists were not permitted to discuss policy in public.
An observer at the Heritage Foundation, according to one press report, has urged that “public affairs offices be used to promote an administration’s world view.” Better to have public affairs people in a public affairs office, where they can speak for the president,” he said, “than, for example, servicing the space station.” Who could argue with that?
But is it the president’s view that should be heard from a scientific enterprise? Is the president an expert on climate change? Doesn’t it fall to scientists to give us the facts of the situation, and then to the president to tell us what he’s going to do about those facts? The public affairs department at NASA has a duty to the truth of science. It is the public affairs office at the White House that properly should represent the president’s position.
What is the point of paying scientists with taxpayer dollars if those same taxpayers are denied access to their work? Also, is the threat from greenhouse gases a matter of policy or of scientific concern? Doesn’t policy flow from that concern? Possibly taxes on gasoline, fuel standards for automobiles, incentives for alternative energy sources and the like? The journal Science has just reported that glaciers in southern Greenland are dumping twice as much ice into the ocean than was the case ten years ago. This may spread north to other glaciers. It also seems to be happening elsewhere on the planet. The result could be a rise in sea levels of two to 20 feet. Is this a policy? Of course not. It’s a prediction of bad trouble if present trends continue.
Granted, Dr. Hanson and the Australian scientist edged close to policy when they called for a reduction in greenhouse gases. But is that really the issue? No. The core question is why are some governments so reluctant to acknowledge the dangers of global warming? When he warned Americans that they were addicted to oil, President Bush made no mention of climate change. He merely made a pitch to cut our dependence on the Middle East, certainly an important thing to do.
What is needed now is free speech for government scientists so they can play their necessary role in helping Americans grasp the horrors that may lie ahead. This could be good politics for the president, building support in Congress for the measures we are coming to know cannot be avoided.