Rep. Lamar Smith has backed down on his quest to get his hands on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists' emails, but that doesn't mean the good congressman from San Antonio — and current chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — has actually let go of his quest to disprove all things climate change.
In recent months, Smith has used everything from strident public statements to strongly worded public letters and subpoenas to try to get the NOAA to cough up what he's after: emails exchanged by NOAA scientists while they were working on a study that has apparently gained the eternal enmity of the House Science Committee chairman since that study debunked a pet theory of climate change deniers, the one that claims that global warming has paused.
After the paper, "Possible Artifacts of Data Biases in the Recent Global Surface Warming Hiatus," which was published by Thomas Karl and other colleagues back in June in Science, came out, Smith went on a warpath.
First, Smith made three written requests demanding information about Karl's study. The NOAA responded in writing and in personal briefs. But that didn't satisfy Smith and the committee, so he upped the ante and subpoenaed records from NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan. And the subpoena — which has had many charging Smith with abusing his power as chairman of the committee — wasn't just aimed at Sullivan.
Smith used it to ask for a sweeping amount of information from the NOAA, including all documents and communications from NOAA employees about how they work with global temperature data sets, looking at everything from how employees have talked about using satellite data to the monthly press releases on the global temperature that are issued to the public. And he wanted the emails exchanged by scientists while they were working on the paper.
The NOAA has remained resolutely opposed to Smith's request, arguing that disclosing emails would screw up the whole scientific process — it's hard for scientists to be open-minded and able to bounce around various theories and ideas if they have to worry about those ruminations being made public and suddenly political — and refusing to hand over the emails.
In the meantime, Smith has gone around doing everything he can to discredit the study. In November he went over Sullivan's head, issuing a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker threatening to subpoena her. He claimed that whistle blowers had informed him that the Karl study was "rushed to publication…ignoring established and standard NOAA scientific processes and potentially violating NOAA's scientific integrity policies."
Sullivan replied a couple of days later, pointing out that Pritzker was out of the country and that the NOAA has repeatedly asked Smith and his committee to narrow the scope of their request — the subpoenas don't specify time frames or individuals and stretch across what Sullivan described as "broad areas of scientific study" — which Smith declined to do.
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Then Sullivan hit back on the study. “Dr. Karl’s study reflects the essence of the scientific process, while refining conclusions as new data and information is discovered,” Sullivan said, attaching NOAA’s 2011 order on scientific integrity, which forbids data manipulation. “Mr. Chairman, let me assure you that I am not engaged in or associated with any politically correct agenda,” she said. “I and the entire NOAA team take seriously the charge to provide the best environmental science and reliable data to the nation and the world.”
Last week seven top science organizations sent a letter to Smith stating that the fight with the NOAA is going to royally screw over academic freedom in the United States. At first it seemed like even the letter's "grave concerns" would ricochet off Smith entirely, but then on Tuesday, there came a sign that something had gotten through.
In another letter to Pritkzer, Smith dropped the emails thing. For now, at least, scientists can send and receive emails — whether the communications are about global warming or cat memes — without fear of the emails being gone over by prying congressional eyes. But that doesn't mean the NOAA fight is over.
Nope. See, Smith backed off the emails but his most recent letter pushes hard to get his hands on the internal deliberations of the bigger fish at the NOAA, including the administrator's office, the communications office, legislative and intergovernmental affairs and the chief information officer. So basically, the scientists are safe for now, but their bosses are not.