NASA is revising its public affairs policies following allegations that political appointees tried to muzzle the agency’s top climatologist, who is known for speaking his mind about global warming.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told a luncheon audience here Feb. 9 that scrutiny of the agency’s communications policies and procedures would continue despite the abrupt resignation of NASA press aide George Deutsch, the 24-year-old political appointee thrust into the spotlight in late January when TheNew York Times reported allegations that he took part in an effort to stifle climatologist James E. Hansen, the outspoken director of the New York-based Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Hansen’s claims prompted House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) to send Griffin a sternly worded letter criticizing NASA’s conduct. “It ought to go without saying that government scientists must be free to describe their scientific conclusions and the implications of those conclusions to their fellow scientists, policymakers and the general public,” Boehlert wrote.
David Goldston, a longtime Boehlert aide and the Science Committee’s staff director, told Space News that Boehlert’s concerns did not end with Deutsch’s resignation. “It’s not over as far as we are concerned and we are glad to see it’s not over as far as NASA is concerned either,” Goldston said. “George Deutsch was part of the problem but he wasn’t the whole problem, and NASA is quite properly pursuing other elements of the problem including the need to develop clearer policies.”
Goldston, who has been working with NASA to investigate Hansen’s claims that public affairs personnel tried to silence and intimidate him, said he was pleased that NASA appears to share Boehlert’s commitment to see the problem resolved.
“There are people other than George Deutsch, both political and career, who have mishandled matters concerning Hansen and perhaps other scientists,” Goldston said. “But again NASA is not taking a case-closed attitude toward this and they are doing exactly what we would hope and expect. The chairman has spoken directly to the administrator and deputy administrator about this and both of them have the same exact attitude as we do about openness and they’re doing exactly what they should be doing.”
In Griffin’s first public comments about the controversy since authoring a “Statement on Scientific Openness” sent to agency personnel and later posted to the NASA Web site, he reaffirmed his commitment to free discourse but also talked about the importance of maintaining clear distinctions between factual observations and policy recommendations.
“Nothing is more important to this agency or to me than a free and open discourse on technical subjects,” Griffin said during a question-and-answer session following his National Space Club speech. “Now there is a line where technical subjects cross over into policy recommendations. … Some folks don’t wish to observe that line. And if they don’t, as long as people speak as private citizens, my attitude is let me hold your coat for you. You can get into that fray and get beat up. You just can’t label it as an agency position.”
Griffin went on to say that NASA’s policies governing what its scientists and engineers can or cannot say “have admittedly not been clear.”
“So before we can expect people to adhere to standards we wish to have as a federal agency, we’ve got to re-look at those standards,” Griffin said. “We’ve got to say what it is we want to say in a clear and consistent fashion and then we can have a close to it.”
Dean Acosta, NASA deputy associate administrator for public affairs, said Feb. 10 that he has not seen any evidence of a systematic effort to squelch scientists or their findings. He also said that any misconduct was limited to Deutsch.
“All of our investigation has shown that this was an isolated incident,” he said. “It’s a shame that one person acting outside of the realms of our policy reflects on the whole organization. Now because of this particular situation it’s fair that we get questions but I don’t want to lose sight of the success this department has had and the very talented people we work with both politically and career.”
Deutsch, in his first interview since he resigned Feb. 7 after it was revealed that he misrepresented his academic credentials to NASA, said that he had done nothing improper and that he was the victim of a partisan smear campaign.
“There has yet to be any proof of any scientific watering down or any scientific censorship coming out of NASA in regards to Hansen or anybody else. What you do have is hearsay coming from a handful of people who have clear partisan ties and they are really coming after me and the rest of the Bush appointees because this is a partisan issue,” Deutsch said in a Feb. 9 interview with Bryan, Tex.-based WTAW News Talk radio . “It’s a culture war issue. They do not like Republicans. They do not like people who support the president. They do not like Christians. And if you are perceived as disagreeing with them, or being one of those people, they will stop at nothing to discredit you.”