A new policy at the Commerce Department may undo much of the ability of government scientists to talk openly to reporters about climate, fisheries, ozone depletion, or a host of other environmental issues.
The ability of government scientists to talk without censorship to reporters about climate science has drawn a storm of controversy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies. Environmentalists and Congressional Democrats (as well as NOAA scientists) have accused the Bush administration of censoring science to support political goals.
Under fire, NOAA had come up with a communications policy that in the view of some promised to improve openness at the agency. Now that policy has been rescinded and replaced by an agency-wide policy for the entire Commerce Department, of which NOAA is an arm. But the new Commerce policy requires scientists and employees to get approval as much as two weeks in advance if they want to share their personal views with inquiring journalists. To reporters on a daily deadline, this effectively gags the scientists.
The new policy does not apply to every utterance by NOAA scientists - just "non-official communications of interest." But that could amount to any statement other than research results about any subject agency political bosses think is sensitive.
Other procedural rules would apply to "official communications" and "fundamental research communications" - which must also usually be pre-approved. For those communications, the rules require approval to be "timely" but do not specify a maximum of two weeks or any other amount of time.
In a March 29, 2007, transmittal letter to NOAA staff, Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher rescinded a recently revamped NOAA policy and said it would be replaced by the one issued by the Department of Commerce. He also said NOAA would be coming up with further guidelines of its own on how to implement the Department's policy.
Lautenbacher claimed that the new policy "reaffirms the Department's commitment to open and transparent public dissemination of scientific research." But whether it actually does is likely to be a matter of some dispute.
The policy also prohibits NOAA employees from sharing their personal views with reporters on government time or using a government phone. It says any communication other than official or research communications "may not take place or be prepared during official working hours; [or] using any U.S. Government resources."
One key variable in triggering restrictions is whether the communication from the employee is "of interest." The policy defines that as one that "is a matter of official interest to the Department because it relates to Department programs, policies, or operations." So a scientist's view on whether current government actions were effective in slowing global warming would likely be "of interest."
In response to questions, Lautenbacher said that the two-week time frame was an outside limit, and that the agency's goal was to respond to most media inquiries within 24 hours.