Scientists Slam Lamar Smith’s NOAA Witch-Hunt

Yesterday, some Christians of the literalist variety got their Twitter knickers in a twist over a Google doodle celebrating the 41st anniversary of the discovery of the Lucy fossil.

You know, because if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes? Amirite?

And why are there different kinds of avian flu? And why must we suffer fools?

This would all be very familiar and par for the course if it were limited to confused people saying dumb stuff on the Internet, but things are quite a bit worse that that, unfortunately.

For example, in our infinite wisdom, we elected a strong Republican majority to run the U.S. House of Representatives, which means that conservative Republicans control all of the committees, including the esteemed Committee on Science, Space and Technology. As you might imagine, this committee has jurisdiction over science, including the climate science that is conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

And that’s a problem because the chairman of the House Science Committee is Rep. Lamar Smith of ExxonMobil, also known as the 21st Congressional District of Texas. And people in ExxonMobil are somewhat skeptical that climate change is actually occurring. Or, at least, their elected representatives are well-compensated to feign this kind of skepticism.

Here’s how this looks in practice:

A top House lawmaker’s confrontation with government researchers over a groundbreaking climate change study is provoking a national backlash from scientists, who say his campaign represents the most serious threat Congress has posed to scientific freedom.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has subpoenaed scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and demanded that they turn over internal e-mails related to their research.

In a way, you don’t really even need to know more. The Chairman of the Science committee is using his subpoena power to harass government scientists because he doesn’t like the results of their research.

This is such an obnoxious thing to do that the director of the NOAA is refusing to comply and telling Lamar Smith to stuff it.

After NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan again balked at the demands on Friday, the [legislative] aide [to Chairman Smith] said the committee still hopes to negotiate with the agency rather than seek contempt charges. In a letter to Smith, Sullivan defended her agency’s work, saying her staff is not influenced by political interference.

“I have not or will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me,” she wrote.

Without getting deep into the actual science here, the dispute arose because updated data caused the NOAA to revise previous findings. And this was annoying to Lamar Smith because it undermined one of his prized talking points for raising doubt about global warming.

Smith has alleged that NOAA researchers used inaccurate data or even manipulated it to promote President Obama’s agenda on climate change. Smith shifted tactics last week, alleging that the research was rushed and citing what he says is information provided by agency whistleblowers showing that some employees at the agency were concerned that it was premature to publish the study.

The lawmaker and committee aides have noted that the study was published two months before the Obama administration announced its Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants, and five months before this month’s climate summit in Paris.

The researchers may have violated the agency’s scientific integrity standard, Smith suggested.

“Their agenda comes first, and the facts come second if at all,” he said in a speech last week to the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin. He denounced the president’s climate agenda as “suspect.”

As just an aside, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is the brainchild of James Leininger who is best known for his role promoting charter schools and taking over the Lone Star State’s Board of Education:

What makes Leininger one of the most powerful people in Texas politics is less the amount of money he has given over the years than the broad reach of his spending and his commitment to a conservative agenda. By pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the previously ignored State Board of Education races, he turned an obscure committee of retired teachers into an ideological hornet’s nest, whose debates over curriculum and textbook content have made national news.

So, you know, the anti-science circle is complete here.

Rep. Lamar Smith goes to a think tank that’s absolutely committed to undermining secular, science-based education to rail against scientists at the NOAA who are conducting research that makes Texan oil moguls uncomfortable.

I shouldn’t need to mention it, but when the chairman of the House Science Committee behaves this way it’s a problem.

Scientists also warn that Smith’s efforts raise concerns for NOAA and other federal agencies, which may now worry about jeopardizing their federal budgets if they get in the crosshairs of a lawmaker who disagrees with their work.

“Now you’ve got somebody who has congressional subpoena power doing this, who can continue to investigate and investigate a particular agency because they don’t like a given result,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They can carry it over in appropriations.”

It’s actually enough of a problem that yesterday “seven scientific organizations representing hundreds of thousands of scientists sent an unsparing letter to Smith, warning that his efforts are ‘establishing a practice of inquests’ that will have a chilling effect.”

According to Open Secrets, the Oil & Gas industry has donated more than $630,000 to Rep. Lamar Smith during his illustrative career, including $10,000 in the last election cycle from Koch Industries.

I guess we can see what they’re paying for.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.