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Congress Still Questions Scientific Information Policies

Members of Congress continue to express concern about the Administration's policies regarding the dissemination of scientific findings involving research in areas such as climate change. In May, the National Science Board (NSB) provided its views on the dissemination of research findings in response to a February 8 letter from Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

In his letter, McCain asked the NSB to examine existing policies of Federal science agencies concerning the suppression and distortion of research findings and the impact these actions could have on the quality and credibility of future Government-sponsored scientific research results.

A May 12 NSB memorandum contains as an attachment a five-page letter to Senator McCain signed by then NSB Chairman Warren Washington. The Washington letter comments favorably on NASA's newly instituted employee policy, citing it as "one way to effectively articulate an agency's goals of scientific openness." The letter continues, "The survey of the agencies' IG [in-house Inspectors General] indicated that no reports were issued to indicate scientific information was suppressed or distorted at the agencies involved with the Board's reviews."

In his letter, Washington found "no consistent Federal policy regarding the dissemination of research results by Federal employees,” and called for the development of “an overarching set of principles for the communication of scientific information by Government scientists, policy makers, and managers.”

Washington believes that “a need exists for all Federal agencies that conduct research to establish policies and procedures to encourage open exchange of data and results of research conducted by agency scientists, while preventing the intentional or unintentional suppression or distortion of research findings and accommodating appropriate agency review.”

Furthermore, “A clear distinction should be made between communicating professional research results and data versus the interpretation of data and results in a context that seeks to influence, through the injection of personal viewpoints, public opinion or the formulation of public policy. Delay in taking these actions may contribute to a potential loss of confidence by the American public and broader research community regarding the quality and credibility of Government sponsored scientific research results."

The full text of Washington’s NSB letter may be read at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/meetings/2006/0509/major_actions.pdf

Early this year, controversy erupted over attempts to restrict NASA researcher James Hansen from discussing climate change. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) wrote letters expressing their concern to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Griffin quickly issued an eight-page information dissemination policy, winning praise from Boehlert and Science Committee Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN).

Less than a month after the resolution of this matter, Boehlert wrote to Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In this April 7 letter, Boehlert wrote that he appreciated Lautenbacher's expressed support for "open and unfettered scientific communication." However, Boehlert went on to express concern that " at least some scientists at NOAA continue to feel that the agency is not encouraging open communication. " He recommended NOAA take corrective steps similar to those instituted by NASA.

Courtesy of FYI, the American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News (http://aip.org/fyi).

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff