Friday, April 06, 2007

Commerce Department Imposes Gag Order on Government Scientists

An order has been issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce that controls what federal government climate, weather and marine scientists can say to the media or in public, even when they are speaking as private citizens. Under rules posted Thursday, these federal scientists must obtain agency pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, concerning any scientific topic deemed "of official interest," according to agency documents released by a national association of government employees in natural resources agencies.

"This ridiculous gag order ignores the First Amendment and disrespects the world-renowned professionals who work within Commerce agencies," said attorney Jeff Ruch, executive director with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

The new order will become effective in 45 days and would repeal a more liberal "open science" policy adopted by NOAA on February 14, 2006.

"Under this policy, National Weather Service scientists can only give out name, rank, serial number and the temperature," Ruch said.

The new administrative order on "Public Communications" covers the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, which includes the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the NOAA Ocean Service, and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service.

It forbids NOAA scientists from communicating any relevant information, even if prepared and delivered on their own time as private citizens, which has not been approved by the official chain-of-command.

Any "fundamental research communication" must "before the communication occurs" be submitted to and approved by the designated "head of the operating unit." While the order states that approval may not be withheld "based on policy, budget, or management implications of the research," it does not define these terms and limits any appeal to within the Commerce Department.

National Weather Service employees are allowed only "as part of their routine responsibilities to communicate information about the weather to the public."

"Scientists must give the Commerce Department at least two weeks "advance notice" of any written, oral or audiovisual presentation prepared on their own time if it "is a matter of official interest to the Department because it relates to Department programs, policies or operations."

Ruch says that while claiming to provide clarity, the order "gives conflicting directives." On one hand it tells scientists that if unsure whether a conclusion has been officially approved "then the researcher must make clear that he or she is representing his or her individual conclusion."
Yet, another part of the order states non-official communications "may not take place or be prepared during working hours."

Ruch warns, "This conflict means that every scientist who answers an unexpected question at a conference puts his or her career at risk by giving an honest answer."

Via the ENS

Here's a link to the actual policy announcement.