Censoring Science at NASA

I posted the following review in March. I’ve made a change (in italics) in the sixth paragraph concerning Mike Griffin’s role in the controversy. The original piece did not give him full credit for changes he made in NASA’s policies.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book about NASA’s work on climate change. “Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth About Global Warming,” by Mark Bowen, is an eye-opening account of the Bush Administration’s handling of global warming science.

Bowen recounts how that the Administration was determined to distort or censor anything produced by government scientists about global warming that contradicted its official position that more study was required before mandatory carbon caps or other actions could be taken.

Although the book focuses on Dr. James Hansen, a noted climate scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center, the story is much broader. Bowen says this effort was part of a larger, tightly coordinated campaign run out of the White House to censor government climate scientists in NASA, NOAA, EPA and every other agency that deals with climate change. This censorship involved the heavy editing of NASA press releases, the denial of permission to scientists to give interviews to media outlets, threats to people’s jobs, and other coercive measures.

The effort began early in the administration’s first term, but it became particularly odious after Bush was re-elected in late 2004. Officials became ever more cocky and bold even as the administration came under increasing international pressure to do something serious about climate change.

Bowen recounts the growing alarm felt by Hansen and other climate scientists as they watched top NASA and Bush Administration officials downplay the seriousness of their findings, even as the evidence grew stronger that warming is accelerating and could produce catastrophic changes to the Earth’s climate. The administration’s pattern of delay, double talk, and cutbacks eventually forced Hansen to speak out publicly, at the risk of his career.

Neither of Bush’s two appointed administrator comes off well. Sean O’Keefe, a budget expert with no scientific or technical training at all, is quoted as telling Hansen not to talk about human-caused global change because the data weren’t strong enough. His successor, Mike Griffin, comes off somewhat better, quickly instituting policies to ensure openness in communications. However, he also left censors in place, slashed the agency’s climate research budget, and publicly questioning whether Hansen and his colleagues were even studying anything important.

It’s a fascinating book that is definitely worth picking up if you are interested in the space agency and climate change. Some of this information came out in press accounts in 2006, but much of it remained hidden below the surface until the publication of this book.

Bowen isn’t the most fluid writer; he sometimes gets lost in the details of various meetings, emails and quotes from various principals. However, the amount of detail he presents helps to build up a very convincing case of malfeasance in the upper levels of the American government.