I had spent years daydreaming about coming to a big city, using research to influence policy, and most of all–continuing to work in the field of public health. Suddenly, I wasn’t daydreaming anymore. I had accepted a job at an advocacy organization. I was excited, nervous, and—most of all, scared. In academia, the term “advocacy” can be met with hesitation. On the one side, being an advocate is the opposite of being objective, and for researchers being objective is everything. It means you are credible, unbiased, and respected by your peers. On the other side, there are some that think policy is grounded in everything but evidence. It is influenced by unsubstantiated claims and emotions—a purely subjective process. After two years, I’ve come to recognize that both sides can learn from each other.
In 2014, I was terrified that by leaving academia, I would no longer be respected by the “ivory tower”. The thought of losing the esteem of those who helped build the foundation of my knowledge base concerned me. For all the time I spent worrying about whether I would be considered a credible researcher, I forgot to consider how my advocacy experience could make me a more competent and sought faculty candidate. The skills and perspectives I gained while working at UCS—mixing the appropriate dose of passion and science—cannot be taught or learned in a classroom.
Some of the most energizing opportunities I’ve had at UCS have been communicating directly with policymakers: Testifying at public hearings, participating in roundtables with former White House staff, and speaking with legislators on Capitol Hill. UCS’s expert Communications and Outreach teams prepared me for each of these activities. First and foremost, I’ve learned the importance of knowing my audience. When speaking with legislators, it is paramount to consider what their constituents care about, what issues they are personally interested in, and how they have voted in the past. I learned that to be most effective, advocates must state directly what the problem is, what the possible solutions are, and walk through the financial and political costs and benefits of taking on an issue. It’s important to be clear and concise and to connect with them through personal stories.
For some academics, telling a personal story can feel far from objective. However, I learned that they can be extremely effective–especially when conveying lots of facts and figures. Last year, I remember sitting in a room with a Congressional staffer talking about my report Lessons from the Lunchroom. I was discussing the impact of school lunch on children’s diets when I noticed her start to fidget…checking her watch, glancing at her phone, etc. I attempted to regain her attention by telling a story about how my 5-year-old nephew likes to mimic my eating behaviors when he visits us. I was trying to really hone in on the message that children need to be introduced at an early age to healthy habits–and schools are a great place to accomplish this. And boom–I had her attention again–so much that she started talking about her own children’s eating habits.
The major lessons I’ve learned about effectively engaging policymakers are: 1) do your research on them, 2) have a clear message, and 3) have a story that drives home your point on a personal level.
For other academics considering advocacy, I am hopeful they can learn from my experience, and making that transition from academia to advocacy won’t seem as scary as it did for me. There are many in the academic community that recognize the importance of young researchers gaining advocacy and policy experience. Dr. Mary Story, a Professor at Duke University and the Director of the Healthy Eating Research program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recently wrote me, “There need to be more opportunities for young research investigators to get hands-on experience and to gain an insider’s view of the advocacy and political process. This type of real-world experience about effectively translating and communicating research into actionable evidence-based practices and policies is critical for improving health in the U.S.” Lucky for me, Dr. Story is not the only academic who thinks this way.
After today, I will leave this incredible organization to be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences at North Carolina State University. I am fortunate that the faculty there respects and values the skills I have gained as an advocate. As Dr. Carolyn Dunn, my soon-to-be department chair has put it, “The importance of advocating for policy change simply cannot be overstated. We need those entering the field of food and health to be part of the policy conversation. Translating what we know about how to help people be healthy into policy is imperative to making lasting change in the health of the nation.”
My ultimate goal is to change the health of the nation for the better. I have spent the past few years working alongside my UCS colleagues to start a national conversation about how to create a better food system in hopes of improving the health and well-being of all Americans. There are many ways to achieve that better system, including through academic research and outreach, and with state-level action. Currently in North Carolina, 30% of adults are obese, 11% have diabetes, and 23% are physically inactive; clearly I have a lot of work to do! So I bid you – and the federal policy arena – goodbye for now, as I take this dream back on the road to the state level.
Author’s note: I won’t be saying goodbye to UCS entirely…I have already signed up for UCS’s Science Network and hope to guest blog from time to time.]]>
The good news is that the need for scientists to step out of their labs is unmatched, the desire from communities in working with researchers is immense, and the opportunities to undertake such partnerships are plenty.
To help the eager and the apprehensive alike, the Center for Science and Democracy just this month released a guide: Scientist-Community Partnerships: A Guide for Successful Partnerships. The guide is designed to assist scientists in considering how their expertise can be brought to bear to address community needs and concerns. It is a product of almost two years of discussions, meetings, webinars, forums, commissioned case studies, and surveys. [We’re still collecting examples if you have your own scientist-community partnership story to share].
The guide also builds upon our own test projects in Southern California, Minnesota, and Houston where we connected scientists with communities on issues as wide ranging as fracking, food, and chemicals. The distillation of these findings are captured in the guide to elucidate the benefits that such collaborations can yield and concrete steps to forging a relationship with local communities.
We also delve into common challenges that such socially-relevant scientific collaborations can face and ways of overcome them. Finally, we have a suite of resources and success stories to inspire you to experience the sweet rewards of community partnerships yourself.
For far too long and in too many academic disciplines, our institutional structures have failed to reward community-relevant science and recognize the various forms of knowledge and expertise. Tenure, promotion, and grant funding processes only pay lip service to broader impacts of research, at best. Not only are these systems a disservice to marginalized communities who most need access to science, they also hinder viable career paths and civic education for early career scientists.
While institutional change at universities and science funding agencies is what’s ultimately needed to reform the way we value, support, and encourage scientists to look beyond the ivory tower, we can’t afford to wait. The challenges we face for the protection of the environment, to fight for social and racial equity and justice, and to help safeguard health and well-being for all demand that we listen to and help address community concerns.
Scientist-community collaborations can take many forms, from presenting your research at public meetings to identifying credible and independent sources of relevant information to co-developing research projects with community members. A collaboration that is built on respect, transparency, open communication, and mutually defined goals has the potential to avert the next Flint, another chemical disaster, and one more unanticipated impact of fracking. The time to forge partnerships with your local communities is now.]]>
Graham Readfearn reports for the Guardian on the unbelievably tragic 93% of the Great Barrier Reef impacted by coral bleaching.
Pacific Standard reports on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work to protect endangered species, and mentions some of our suggestions for improving the process: putting “nerdy little angels on FWS’s burdened bureaucratic shoulder” (their most excellent words).
Slate details an example of politics getting in the way of telling a scientific story: the CDC’s failure to identify the troubling origin of the cholera epidemic that raged in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. NPR has more on who’s being sued as a result.
My colleague Pallavi Phartiyal connects the dots between attacks on researchers who use fetal tissue and other scientists whose work is dragged into political fights.
The American Physical Society did a study on the climate for LGBT physicists and found that there is a lot of work to be done to make physics more welcoming. More on that soon in a longer post.
The American Geophysical Union couldn’t find any evidence that Exxon Mobil is currently supporting climate change misinformation, so they decided to keep taking money from the company. They must not have looked very hard. In related news, the American Petroleum Institute warned the oil industry about climate change…in 1968.
And then Berkeley Breathed, who returned this year to create the great strip Bloom County again, drew this moving tribute to Prince. Art, and creative gender expression, lives on.]]>
Last week I attended a half-day event put on by Scientific American. The topic was media coverage of scientific topics and the “elephant” was the event’s corporate sponsorship. The sponsors were Johnson & Johnson and GMO Answers, a website funded by The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes leading agricultural companies such as BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. GMO Answers is run by Ketchum, the public relations firm known for its work promoting the agriculture industry. Many on social media expressed disapproval with the funding of the event. How could Scientific American host such a biased event? many wondered. But is the sponsorship of such an event inherently problematic? The discussion raised questions about the appropriate role of private sector funding for scientific events and for scientific research. Let’s dive into the challenges of private sector funding of science. Here goes.
First and foremost, funding sources for scientific events, conferences, and research should be disclosed publicly in a clear and obvious location. This is a given. Scientific journals routinely ask authors to disclose real or perceived conflicts of interest and to list funders in acknowledgements. These are excellent places to disclose all funding sources and the scientific community expects this. And notably, there are consequences for scientists who don’t and are discovered, as we’ve seen on everything from hydraulic fracturing research to climate change contrarians to doctors’ pharmaceutical connections.
At the event I attended last week, at least one journalist who spoke claimed he didn’t learn of GMO Answers’ sponsorship until after agreeing to participate. This is inappropriate. Potential participants should know about the sponsorship up front before judging their interest in participating. (Note: Scientific American claimed this was unintentional.) To that end, journalists also should disclose any compensation they’ve received for participation in such events.
Provided we know about funding sources, how should the resulting science be judged? Should we assume corporate-funded science is tainted? Biased? Incorrect? It depends on the context. At a minimum, science should be subject to a greater level of scrutiny if it receives funding from an industry with direct interests in the implications of that science. Would you trust a study funded by the tobacco industry that touted health benefits of smoking? Of course not. (The University of Maryland, for example, learned this lesson recently on its reporting of a shoddy study promoting the medical benefits of chocolate milk for concussion recovery. The research was sponsored by the very brand of chocolate milk being studied—what odds!).
What would greater scrutiny mean for such science? It means that to trust the science produced, we would expect the research to follow best practices for ensuring the independence of the science: Strong external peer review from scientists who have no conflict of interest, disclosure of all financial ties, public availability of methods and, where appropriate data, and no manipulation of results or messaging for corporate (organizational) purposes.
But funding relationships aren’t necessarily problematic. Private sector funding can be routed through a neutral third party to insulate the science from inappropriate influence. The Health Effects Institute, for example, is a nonprofit that allocates and oversees research funds from the motor vehicle industry and the EPA to academic researchers studying the health impacts of air pollution. Corporations can name buildings, support student scholarships, and sponsor events in ways that are less likely to have direct impact on the quality of science. These actions do, however, undoubtedly influence people, if immeasurably, and they lend science credibility and access to the funding agent. (Perhaps a subject for a future blog…)
Further, the nature of the relationship matters, and this should also be disclosed. An arrangement where the sponsor has control over how the study is conducted or what results get published (or the ability to review as in the case of Willie Soon’s ExxonMobil funding) is far more problematic than an unattached grant where a scientist is free to conduct and publish the research as they see fit and free to name the funder.
Good science can have industry funding. However, researchers who accept direct money from financial interests in the areas in which they work shouldn’t be surprised if their work is subject to greater scrutiny. And importantly, they should proactively disclose that funding. It could be exemplary science, but we can’t forget the past and current activities of some industries when it comes to funding science.
Many private sector actors have demonstrated time and again their inability to respect science and play by its rules. The sugar and corn syrup industry have paid seemingly independent scientists to spout industry talking points without disclosing their affiliation to the industry. The chemical industry has paid consultants to conduct intentionally misleading studies to hide the health impacts of its chemicals, while countless people die because the chemicals go unregulated. And it was recently revealed that the NFL used incomplete data sets to obscure the relationship between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
For many people (and I’d include myself here), these actors have abdicated any right for us to assume they are acting in good faith. The burden of proof should be on these industries to demonstrate they are following independent science protocols in order to regain the public trust. In some cases, entire industries have had their social license to operate revoked. As the most prominent example, any science affiliated with the tobacco industry is no longer considered credible by most.
Increasingly, the fossil fuel industry is being stigmatized in the same way. Investors are weary of the industry’s political activities around climate change, an ever increasing list of state attorney generals are investigating oil companies for deceiving the public about their products, and scientists are telling the largest society of earth scientists in the world that they don’t want ExxonMobil to sponsor their conference.
Many have argued that corporate funding allows research that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It’s true. As government grants get increasingly competitive and public science funding decreases, researchers are strapped to find funds to support their work, especially in light of academic pressures to bring dollars to their university. For individual studies and events, scientists and institutions must decide if industry money is worthwhile and in what capacity.
I thought the Scientific American event was an interesting and substantive conversation on science communication. For example, the journalist panel had an enlightening discussion on if and how to cover those with misinformed views on a scientific topic (e.g. prominent voices with anti-vaccination views), whether their coverage would lend credibility to misinformation, and how to provide tools to their audience to judge the credibility of their sources. But online the conversation instead turned to the “industry taint” of the event rather than its content. If the goal of the event was to have an honest conversation on the challenges of portraying scientific topics in the media (and we might speculate on whether or not that was the goal), was the added funding from GMO Answers and Johnson & Johnson worth it?
As scientists and as consumers of scientific information, we must judge for ourselves what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to private sector funding of science. We must demand transparency around funding sources and funding relationships so we have the full picture with which to judge. And we must hold actors accountable when we find inappropriate funding relationships. This, unfortunately, will mean that we’ll often have to deal with a lot of elephants in the room.
The 2011 version of the USDA scientific integrity policy had some shortcomings. Namely, the policy failed to address many of the guidelines put forth in the December 2010 scientific integrity directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
It failed to include two key tenets of scientific free speech: It didn’t grant scientists the “right of last review” on materials publicly released in their name or that significantly relied on their work. And it didn’t provide a “personal views exception”, which would allow scientists to express their personal views on a topic (including views on policy), provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency. (For more on why scientists need personal views exceptions in government agency policies, see my previous blog here.)
Also of concern, the policy didn’t contain many specifics about who is responsible and how the stated policies would be implemented. Importantly, the details of this policy didn’t matter much in any event, since the policy expired on August 5, 2012, one year after its issuance.
The 2013 update to the USDA scientific integrity policy makes improvements. First off, it removes any time limitation for its relevance. It also adds significantly more detail about who is responsible for carrying out which aspects of the policy. The new policy creates a USDA Departmental Scientific Integrity Officer and requires each agency within the USDA to appoint an agency level scientific integrity officer. These are important efforts for creating the structure and mechanisms to carry out the principles of the policy.
The policy also adds a few new provisions, including one protecting whistleblowers. The policy states that the Department policy is to:
Protect those who uncover and report allegations of research misconduct or other violations of scientific integrity, as well as those accused of research misconduct or other violations of scientific integrity in the absence of a finding of misconduct, from prohibited personnel practices (as defined in 5 U.S.C. 2302(b));
It is great to see the USDA add this provision to protect not only those who report scientific integrity breaches but also those accused, if no misconduct is found. This is important as we know that scientific integrity cases are often complicated and some may be wrongly accused.
Other new provisions to the USDA policy were less positive. A new provision now states that the department policy is to (emphasis mine):
(2) Ensure that scientists may communicate their findings without political interference or inappropriate influence, while at the same time complying with USDA policies and procedures for planning and conducting scientific activities, reporting scientific findings, and reviewing and releasing scientific products. Such communications include research on policy-related issues when appropriate to the role of the agency and scientist; however, the scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently. Communications on such matters should remain within the bounds of their scientific findings. Such scientific and technical communications for non-USDA media (e.g., manuscripts and presentations for scientific journals, workshops, conferences, and symposia) should follow agency technical review procedures and do not generally require review above the agency level.
It is good to see the USDA explicitly prohibit “political interference and inappropriate influence” over scientists’ communication of their work, as we know these are often the source of scientific integrity problems.
The second bolded area raises questions about USDA scientists’ ability to express their personal views. The policy appears to prohibit scientists from speaking on anything outside of their scientific findings, regardless of whether they clarify if they are speaking in their personal capacity. Instead of including such restrictive language, the USDA could have allowed scientists to express personal views with a disclaimer that they are not speaking on behalf of their agency.
Indeed, other federal agencies have effectively dealt with this issue within their scientific integrity policies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, clearly articulates scientists’ right to express their personal views in its policy. The NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy states:
NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints, for example about policy or management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions, but in doing so they must make clear that they are presenting their individual opinions- not the views of the Department of Commerce or NOAA.
So how is this new USDA policy working now that it has been in effect for a few years? We know from past UCS work that policies don’t always match practices. Agencies can have great agency culture that protects scientists without relying on a policy. And on the other hand, agencies can have wonderful policies in place that simply aren’t implemented. The only way to know is to hear from scientists inside the agency.
In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey of federal scientists within its Science Network. Though not comprehensive in nature, the survey yielded some interesting anecdotes suggesting that USDA scientific integrity and communications policies may not be living up to their intentions.
“The policies are written so vaguely that the [USDA] can and does suppress papers that may be inconvenient for other government agencies and industry.” — Anonymous USDA scientist, 2012
“ ‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — Anonymous USDA scientist on the agency’s social media policy, 2012
To be fair, this survey did not account for the 2013 updates to the USDA policy. What do we know about how the policy is being implemented currently? We can look to more recent cases for that.
As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, who recently left the agency, has filed as a whistleblower, claiming the USDA suppressed his research, which focuses on pesticide use and its impacts. Lundgren was a Senior Research Entomologist and Lab Supervisor for the USDA Agriculture Research Service. Among other complaints, Lundgren says that USDA disciplined him in retaliation for speaking publicly about his research and has stifled his ability to publish and talk to the media. When USDA dismissed his complaint, Lundgren appealed. In response, an internal Scientific Integrity Review Panel was convened and concluded that “the allegation was unsubstantiated and there was not a preponderance of evidence to establish that the USDA [scientific integrity policy] was violated.” Then in February, the USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong announced that she would be opening an investigation into the high volume of allegations around scientific integrity the department has been seeing, including Lundgren’s case.
Without getting into the details of the allegations, its worth looking at the degree to which the USDA scientific integrity policy is or isn’t equipped to address these kinds of issues. For one, the lack of clear guidance on if and how employees might express their personal views leaves scientists like Lundgren vulnerable if they choose to speak about research that might have policy implications or otherwise be controversial. The provision that “scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of … USDA” casts a fairly wide net under which the agency could claim scientists acted inappropriately.
Second, Lundgren’s case shows that the department hadn’t fully developed how it would handle scientific integrity accusations and appeals. Interestingly, the USDA scientific integrity policy update did add a provision on protection of whistleblowers and did add significant language on how such policies would be carried out. Note the above figure from the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy Handbook. But it appears some of this procedural language hasn’t been fully implemented, at least in Lundgren’s case.
PEER also finds shortcomings in the policy. The group filed a petition for rulemaking at the agency asking it to revise its scientific integrity policy to include more clarity on handling scientific misconduct cases.
Regardless of how Lundgren’s case evolves, it highlights an important challenge at the USDA: How do you clearly and consistently implement a policy through a large and geographically dispersed agency? My past analysis of scientific integrity across the government suggests that these agencies may have more difficulty with policy implementation than those that are more centralized.
This case also reminds us that policies are easier to change than culture. Agencies can improve their policies on paper, but the work doesn’t stop there. Agencies need to take steps to facilitate a change in practices across the agency to ensure they are consistent with the new policy. Agency leadership must make clear to employees that scientific integrity is valued and that the agency takes the policy seriously. If this type of positive reinforcement isn’t consistently applied, employees are apt to forget or revert back to practices under past administrations when scientific integrity wasn’t a priority.
The Obama Administration has made strides in promoting the importance of scientific integrity across the government, but we still have a ways to go before the scientific integrity policies are effectively implemented at the USDA and elsewhere.]]>
This will always be. Journalists argue that FOIA has been a valuable tool for reporters to expose undue influence from powerful industries on academics. Scientists argue that FOIA has been misused by these same well-funded industries (as well as others with an axe to grind) to harass scientists and unfairly cast doubt on research that threatens either their bottom line (or their worldview).
They’re both right.
As I have written repeatedly, there are many legitimate types of scrutiny over science and scientists (and thus, I take issue with the article’s original headline online asserting that UCS wishes to “shield scientists from public scrutiny” – see UPDATE below). For example, scientists should make public data and methodology related to published papers so that other researchers can attempt to replicate the work. They should make public anything that creates an actual or perceived conflict of interest—research funding, for example, or contributors to a scientist’s public testimony.
But it is wishful thinking to believe that scientific discourse will not suffer if each peer review comment or academic exchange is in the public eye. Therefore, we criticize FOIA requests that are obvious fishing expeditions and commend those that are narrowly tailored, while bringing attention to the toll that the abuse of FOIA can have on individual researchers. It all comes down to what is in the public interest.
While some state FOIA laws could be reformed to strike a better balance between transparency and privacy, the fact remains that we can come up with better tools to hold scientists, academics institutions, and the private sector accountable. These laws, despite being an essential tool for democracy, have their limits.
They mostly apply only to public institutions, allowing those at public schools to be harassed while those at private institutions escape scrutiny. They are expensive and time-consuming to implement. Exemptions that do exist are often too widely applied. And it is extremely difficult to get the whole story without knowing what you don’t know to ask for.
Those who champion full access to scientists’ archives point to recent investigations where journalists used FOIA to uncover important information. For example, WBEZ’s Monica Eng recently reported on a University of Illinois genetic engineering researcher who failed to disclose a $57,000 grant from Monsanto. Her piece also highlighted the troubling trend of university foundations laundering money from those who wish to keep their donations—and strings that are attached to those donations—private.
The Globe article cites the case of Willie Soon, a Harvard-Smithsonian researcher whose papers were
approved provided before publication to the fossil fuel company that funded his work for “comment and input.” Further, the Smithsonian agreed to “not publish and utilize the name or otherwise identify” the name of the funder without its written consent (see UPDATE #2 below).
In both of these cases, this information was revealed through FOIA requests (and UCS supports the use of FOIA to learn more about funding and funding agreements). Yet required, proactive disclosure would have brought this information into public view in advance of any requests.
We can, and should, expect academics whose work is related to contentious issues to be subject to significant scrutiny. And it’s increasingly clear that we need better, more uniform, enforceable disclosure standards. Then we can move beyond the FOIA debate to more effectively balance the public’s interest in transparency and the public’s interest in the ability of academics to do their best work.
UPDATE, March 21 at 3:30 p.m.: The online article headline was changed this afternoon to the headline that was in print. It now reads, “How public must science be? Union of Concerned Scientists would limit disclosure.”
UPDATE, March 23 at 5:45 p.m.: This post originally stated that the fossil fuel company (Southern Company) had approval power over Soon’s research. This language was imprecise. Instead, it was provided with an “advance written copy of proposed publications regarding the deliverables for comment and input.” The Smithsonian clarified to me in an email to me that such language would not be included in future grant agreements. I also left out the fact that the Smithsonian needed to ask for permission to disclose the funder’s name. This was also in the grant agreement. The institution has since reviewed its policies and made commitments to more transparency.
“This is a national crisis. And I talk to scientists who tell me that fracking is doing terrible things to water systems all over this country.”
Now, for anyone who has been following this issue closely, they would know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft assessment “on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activites on drinking water resources” last summer. In a (what can only be described as misleading) press release, the agency claimed that fracking has “not led to widespread systemic impacts to drinking water resources.”
How do we make sense of these conflicting messages?
Since the report’s release, an EPA Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) has publicly met multiple times to deliberate the findings and review public comments (including those provided by more than 18,000 UCS supporters and Science Network members last September). So far, several of the SAB panelists agree that the EPA’s high-level conclusion that the agency did not find “widespread, systemic impacts” is not representative of the data presented in the 998 pages of the report.
This phrasing in the executive summary and the press release, which the EPA intentionally chose to put front and center, has become a lightning rod for the agency, the SAB, and the public. Consequently, industry has used this to suggest that there aren’t any problems with fracking activities, despite the fact that the report itself and the initial external scientific opinion is contrary, with the panel going so far as to say that the wording “does not reflect the uncertainties and data limitations” described in the assessment.
The SAB most recently met on Monday, and will meet at least once more today. Ultimately, the panel is responsible for providing feedback to the agency that hopefully the EPA will take into account before finalizing the assessment. The SAB is expected to complete its review in the next month or so, and in an initial draft report (not yet final) to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, has raised concerns and asked for more clarity around the major findings.
Specifically, the SAB has hinted at asking for clearer definitions of “systemic” and “widespread,” and will most likely ask the EPA to appropriately recognize the importance of local impacts related to fracking activities in the executive summary and supporting materials, instead of downplaying them.
However, there is some dissent. Led by Walter Hufford, who works for Talisman Energy, a handful of SAB panelists believe that the EPA’s topline finding is accurate and does not need any modification. This goes against what many of the panelists believe, and, also downplays the impacts of fracking activities in communities across the country.
More importantly, as my colleague Dr. Gretchen Goldman noted last summer, the draft assessment itself “found specific instances where well integrity and waste water management related to hydraulic fracturing activities impacted drinking water resources” and identified several pathways through which risk of water contamination exists.
This inherent contradiction is exactly why there needs to be more clarity in what the EPA is trying to say.
Hufford is also questioning what the EPA actually means when it talks about fracking in the assessment. During Monday’s meeting, he argued that the word “fracking” only refers to injecting water and chemicals at a high pressure into a well, and not the other activities associated with the “frack job,” such as constructing a well pad (before fracking) or transporting wastewater (after fracking). In his world, if wastewater from a fracked well polluted a water source (happened just yesterday in Ohio), it wouldn’t be as a result of “fracking.”
But this is a tortured argument at best. In the eyes of a community dealing with the impacts of fracking activities, there is no difference. And this is one thing the EPA is actually clear about. In all their materials, the agency continually refers to the topic of study as “hydraulic fracturing activities,” not just hydraulic fracturing (emphasis added), and specifically defines that these activities include everything from water acquisition to wastewater treatment and disposal.
As Dr. Goldman wrote, the point of this study, or any other fracking study, shouldn’t be to answer the question of whether we should support fracking, or whether fracking is safe. The point of the science is to tell us about the public health and safety risks of fracking (instead of just pretending they don’t exist), and provide accurate information to communities and policy makers so that they can make a well-informed decision.
The work of the SAB is critical, and the EPA’s final report can help citizens across the country sort through fact versus fiction. That is why the agency needs to get this right, and unambiguously communicate what its research and data suggest.
It is no wonder that climate change never shows up in the top 10 lists of issues of most concern to voters. To care about it, they have to hear about it, see it, touch it and feel it. TV has the power to help us do that.
Media Matters latest report showed that the hottest year on record (2015) that ended with the first ever truly global climate agreement was marked by less broadcast media coverage than the previous year and failed to document health and economic consequences of rising global temperatures. Hawaii Congressman Schatz had and I had a similar reaction to this news. He issued a statement saying,
In a year when nearly 200 countries around the world collectively recognized the threat of climate change and the United States made historic commitments to cut carbon pollution, major networks actually cut their media coverage of climate change. In 2015, the network Sunday shows devoted just 73 minutes to climate change, a ten percent decrease from the year before. What makes these findings even more troubling is the fact that with the little time devoted to climate change, these Sunday shows continued to mislead their audiences by including climate denial as part of the discussion. The facts are clear. Scientists, governments, and major corporations around the world have accepted the facts about climate change and are having real debates on solutions. In this consequential election year, it’s time for news broadcasters to do the same.
As I marvel at the Trump phenomenon, I can’t help but wonder whether the key to making progress on climate change (or not) doesn’t have something to do with how the news media covers it. TV producers used to argue that covering climate change was tough because it was all ‘projected’ impacts of melting polar ice caps typically described in dry, complicated scientific journal articles. The only visuals were maps, charts and graphs. Sadly, that is no longer the case.
Last year I visited Iceland and saw glaciers melting before my eyes. We visited Jökulsárlón, (translated literally “glacial river lagoon,”) on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. I tasted thousand year old ice and saw the many hues of ice blue as sunlight turned it white and even translucent. I saw ice sculptures, created by the calved glacier’s movement through the bay and ultimately into the ocean, unless waylaid by surf to the black sand beaches. Our guide reported that local scientists predict the entire glacier will be gone by the end of this century.
Compelling pictures and human stories of the real life consequences of climate change are all too easy to come by today. The Equation feature series about communities on the front lines of climate change showcases just a few. People in those communities can bear witness to the health implications of climate change and the fossil energy pollution that causes it. Yet Media Matters found that the major broadcast news networks only focused on the connection between climate change and health five times all year.
The Clean Power Plan (CPP), designed to reduce the emissions from those polluting power plants, can (in Trump speak) make cities and states great again! Yet this life-saving law was barely mentioned on the evening news. UCS analysis indicates states are well on their way toward a low carbon future—a future with potential economic and health benefits in the millions and billions.
In Virginia, the CPP emissions limits would yield health and economic benefits worth an estimated $2.6 billion cumulatively through 2030 from the avoided carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide pollution. Similarly in Pennsylvania, benefits worth an estimated $4.5 billion could be expected. In Illinois, the CPP could provide health and economic benefits by decreasing carbon and other pollutants, worth some $14.3 billion cumulatively through 2030. CPP driven emissions reductions in Minnesota would provide some $111 million in public health and economic benefits between 2022 and 2030.
It seems that neither good news nor bad news related to climate change can rival the horserace of this year’s crazy election season. But it does seem like it is important to more clearly put the faces of climate change before the American people—be it farmers and ranchers struck by drought; coastal communities facing rising seas; wildfires threatening neighborhoods and national landmarks; and communities on the fenceline of polluting facilities.
The networks are missing out on the powerful stories of how climate change is creating both winners and losers in towns and cities across America and the globe. But it could be that those stories aren’t yet dramatic enough to make the news.
MauiTime, an online news outlet, mocked Congressman Schatz’ reaction to the Media Matters report with an analysis that brings me back to my opening question: is there a basis for comparing coverage of Trump and coverage of climate change? Here’s their analysis:
Trump dominates the news because he says and does outrageous, horrific things. And climate change gets the shaft because it’s based on scientific hypotheses and analyses that frighten TV news execs worse than any horror movie. Now in 50 years, when climate change has led to vastly more superstorms and rising sea levels that have lay waste to the world’s coastlines and caused devastating food shortages and chaos, then maybe climate change will start playing a bigger role in TV news.
On October 13, the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Lamar Smith issued a subpoena to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) asking for all correspondence, notes, and other materials from the last seven years related to the work of certain NOAA climate scientists, motivated by their authorship on a paper published in Science earlier this year. The move was one of the first uses of the Chairman’s newly granted subpoena powers, which allow him to issue subpoenas without the consent of both parties. On October 27, NOAA sent a letter back to Smith outlining the publicly available data and research methods, resources, and other communications that Rep. Smith already had access to.
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking member on the House Science Committee, sent a scathing letter to Chairman Smith condemning the “illegitimate harassment” by Rep. Smith on October 23. Then on November 4, the American Meteorological Society echoed this sentiment in its own letter to the Chairman, disapproving of his actions.
Despite this criticism, Rep. Smith has said he intends to move forward with the subpoena. “Recorded interviews” (effectively depositions) are planned in which the lead author of the study and head of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information Thomas Karl and several other NOAA employees will field questions from Rep. Smith and his colleagues.
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Rep. Smith’s subpoena is extremely broad. It asks for nearly seven years of internal deliberations and communications among NOAA scientists, including “all documents and communications” related to NOAA’s measurement of our climate. “All documents and communications” would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a host of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.
Some headlines have implied that NOAA is concealing scientific data and research methods, but this isn’t the case. As NOAA detailed in its letter to Rep. Smith, the Science Committee (and anyone with an internet connection) has access to the data and methods used to produce the results in the study. This is all he needs to be able to assess the quality of the science under discussion. Still, NOAA went the extra step and met several times with committee staff to provide them with the (again, already publicly available) data, explain the science, and answer numerous questions. But Smith continued with the subpoena regardless.
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A good question. The study under discussion analyzes surface observation data for temperature, one input (but not the only input) into scientists’ measuring the rate at which climate change is occurring. (For a full summary of the paper and its implications, check out my colleague Roberto Mera’s post). In recent years there was an apparent hiatus or slowdown in the rate of global warming observed from surface temperature observations, a point that climate contrarians have (inaccurately) used repeatedly to make the case that climate change is either not happening or has been exaggerated.
Karl et al. 2015 updates NOAA’s global temperature dataset using a larger weather station database and gives new understanding of temperature biases in sea surface temperature raw observations collected from sources like buoys and ships. These updates to observational datasets happen all of the time as biases are discovered and dealt with and more observations come online. The article finds that the alleged pause in warming rate largely disappears. (For a detailed explanation of the study and debunking of Rep. Smith’s inaccurate claims about it, see this FactCheck.org piece.) The study is an important development in our understanding of how surface temperature changes, but to be clear, nothing out of the ordinary was done from a scientific perspective. The study does, however, create inconvenient new science for those looking to cast doubt on climate science.
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To be clear, the updates that the NOAA scientists made to the global temperature dataset were normal and routine, as scientists need to account for all kinds of changes to how temperature observations are taken over time and all over the world. Taking temperature measurements from ships has evolved over the last century, from use of wooden buckets to (more insulated) rubber buckets to use of ship intake valves. These different methods will yield slightly different temperature readings even if they were all taken from the same ship at the same time. Scientists need to account for these differences when analyzing temperature changes. (More explanation of this concept is here).
Think of it this way: If you were tracking your body weight over time, and sometimes you stepped on the scale with heavy clothes on, sometimes while holding a dumbbell, and sometimes while on the moon, then you’d want to account for these differences to see how your true body weight changed over time. To not do this would give you an inaccurate record of your weight over time. This is what scientists do when they update temperature data sets—make adjustments so that all temperature readings are comparable over time and space.
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An inquiry like Smith’s that dives deeper, asking for internal communications between NOAA scientists is invasive and unnecessary for a legitimate investigation of scientific validity. As I and my colleagues have documented extensively before (and again here and here), communications among scientists on scientific topics should be protected from public scrutiny. Such privacy for scientific deliberations is necessary for scientists to have the freedom to share ideas, talk frankly with colleagues, and let scientific understanding evolve. This is how science works. Investigations like Rep. Smith’s waste time and resources and send a chilling message to scientists about their freedom to share their work.
Last week, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) sent a letter to Rep. Smith, echoing this point. “Singling out specific research studies, and implicitly questioning the integrity of the researchers conducting those studies, can be viewed as a form of intimidation that could deter scientists from freely carrying out research on important national challenges,” wrote the AMS.
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Indeed, Congress has the authority to conduct oversight of federal agencies, and this is what Rep. Smith is invoking to target the NOAA scientists. Specifically, Rep. Smith is exploiting his new (worrisome) unilateral subpoena powers that don’t require agreement from both parties on the committee. The new powers make it more likely that oversight will be political in nature. But instead of focusing on what Congress has the authority to do, we should ask whether it should be spending its limited time and resources on investigating the science of individual research studies. Is this a responsible use of that authority?
There are of course many situations where Congressional oversight is warranted and helpful for understanding actions taken by the executive branch and for seeking out waste, fraud, and abuse within the government. This is why Congress was granted this authority by our forefathers. But here we have a different case. First, there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by the scientists. The paper in question used publicly available data and methods, was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in a top journal, and is widely accepted by the scientific community. Nevertheless, the issuance of a subpoena, and public misrepresentations of science suggesting that NOAA has “altered data” and is hiding information, suggests guilt. Rather transparently, this demonstrates that Smith’s subpoena is not about the science; it’s about politics.
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Disturbingly, we are seeing Congress now take on the tactics that were previously reserved only for industry and fringe politically active nonprofits. As my colleague Michael Halpern points out, witch hunts for scientists’ emails are an increasingly common intimidation tactic used by industry groups to cast doubt on evidence that is viewed as contrary to their interests. In order to access scientists’ internal exchanges, other entities and public officials have used subpoenas (see British Petroleum and Woods Hole or former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli), open records laws (see many examples), and theft (see Climategate). But a congressional committee chairman using that tactic takes it to a new level.
It’s also worth noting the similarities in timing and tactic between Rep. Smith’s actions and another time that climate scientists’ privacy was compromised for political gain. In the summer of 2009—just before the international climate talks in Copenhagen—stolen emails from scientists at the University of East Anglia were released and taken out of context to cast doubt on the evidence showing climate change is occurring. Now, a month before another round of important global climate negotiations in Paris, we are seeing another attempt to scrutinize and release the private deliberations of climate scientists.
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Let’s take a step back and look at what we are talking about here. Scientists at NOAA are using publicly available data and have shared their methods. Their work has stood up to scrutiny from their peers in the scientific community. In the world of science, this gives the work credibility. Disagreements with the approach or findings of the study should be battled out in the scientific literature. Other scientists with concerns about the study are free to re-analyze the data and publish their own findings. This is how scientific work is scrutinized, challenged, and made more robust over time.
As an agency, NOAA is no stranger to scientific integrity. In fact, NOAA has one of the strongest scientific integrity policies of any federal agency. A recent survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that many NOAA scientists agree that the scientific integrity there is top-notch. One scientist wrote, “I have always believed that the scientific integrity was the top priority, and that the facts speak for themselves. I have never witnessed at any level attempts to change or suppress findings, even if they are controversial.” And another scientist tellingly responded, “NOAA conducts cutting edge science. The integrity of the science is not the problem. The problem is a lack of public (see Congress) recognition and appreciation for the quality of the work being done.”
To be sure, the survey also found areas where NOAA could improve. Most notably, there’s evidence that NOAA should be doing more to make sure its employees are aware of and adhering to its scientific integrity policy. NOAA’s Chief Scientist has said that he will continue to work on addressing these issues and evidence points to the fact that NOAA takes scientific integrity seriously.
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Rep. Smith’s actions raise alarms in the scientific community, especially when taken in conjunction with his other recent actions targeting scientists. In sum, Rep. Smith’s actions serve to intimidate scientists studying the climate. What’s especially disturbing in this case, is that the Chairman is now employing intimidation tactics that have until now been reserved for the tobacco industry, front groups and the like. This is a troubling trend and one that should be watched closely.
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The FDA’s new social media policy, posted online today, earns an A, or 90 out of 100 points on the scale created for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Grading Government Transparency report. This puts the FDA near the top of the class in terms of policy quality. By comparison, other agencies ranged from a D to an A on this scale. Here’s what earned the FDA high marks.
A substantial portion of points came from its distinction between official and personal use of social media, and notably, the freedom it gives to its employees on the latter. Not all agencies’ policies made this important distinction in clarifying how their employees can use social media and only a few match or exceed the FDA policy’s excellent guidance on personal use of social media.
As I’ve detailed before, federal employees should be able to name their agency on their personal social media accounts. The ability of scientists to express their personal views on matters related to their science is a fundamental tenet of scientific free speech. In a world where activities are increasingly online, this right should extend to social media platforms.
Government scientists who want to engage on social media platforms are sometimes at a disadvantage if they can’t mention their employer—a key component of their scientific credentials. It’s these scientific credentials that give scientists the ability to fully participate online, while sharing their expertise. As long as scientists have a disclaimer in their profile, it is clear that they are not speaking for their agency.
The FDA policy has just such language. The FDA policy states, “To use social media in his or her personal capacity, an employee does not need to obtain permission or approval…” and “an employee may include his or her title of position in an area of the social media account designated for biographical information.” The policy also encourages use of a disclaimer if employees have concerns that use of social media may create the impression of agency views. Other agencies with strong language in this area are the Department of the Interior and the National Institutes Health social media policies
Another strong feature of the FDA social media policy is its provision outlining the right and procedure for scientists to get corrections for anything that relies on their science that’s incorrectly put out on social media (either by accident or intent). This is a provision that UCS first advocated in a 2013 report, as the social media-equivalent of scientists’ right of last review—that is, the right of scientists to review public communications that rely on their science. This pre-approval policy makes sense for press releases, reports and the like but isn’t practical for the fast-paced nature of social media. As a result, scientists should have a right to correction for anything sent out on social media with inaccuracies. Within hours of UCS issuing this recommendation, the U.S. Geological Survey revised their social media to include such a provision.
Now the FDA joins USGS as the only other agency with this important provision. The FDA policy states that, “an agency employee can request that an agency social media communication be corrected, amended, or clarified if (1) the communication is based upon the research published work of the employee or purports to express the employees views by name or title; and (2) the communication is false, misleading or confusing.” The policy then goes on to outline the procedure an employee would take to obtain such a correction.
To round out its strong policy, the FDA social media policy also specifies to whom the policy applies, which includes contractors, encourages its employees to use social media to promote the agencies’ mission and public health, and includes a comprehensive list of links to relevant policies and information from within the agency and across the government. I commend the FDA for developing a strong social media policy. A policy of course needs to be fully implemented, and I look forward to seeing how the agency proceeds in putting this strong policy into practice.