NASA Downplayed Climate Studies, Monitor Says

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NASA's inspector general says that NASA's own press office "marginalized, or mischaracterized" its global warming studies between 2004 and 2006. The inspector general also said NASA didn't attempt to interfere with scientific research about climate change.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, NASA's inspector general confirmed allegations that the space agency's press office downplayed findings about global warming. The report says the agency softened the press releases between 2004 and 2006 and improperly blocked journalists from speaking with a key climate scientist. But the inspector general says NASA did not attempt to interfere with scientific research about climate change.

For more on the report, we're joined by NPR's Richard Harris. And Richard, what led to this investigation of NASA's public affairs office in the first place?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, Melissa, this story may sound familiar because it's been talked about over the last couple of years. Two and a half years ago, actually, a climate scientist, NASA's James Hansen, provided a provocative and actually a fairly political talk at a big scientific meeting. And when journalists said they wanted to talk to him afterwards, they went to the public affairs office, and the public affairs office said no. So eventually, that news hit the New York Times and other news organizations. And as a result of that, hue and cry, Congress called hearings. And as a result of all of that, a lot of other allegations started to come out.

And one of the most striking was that the press office was actually watering down press releases. And you may recall the story of one of the key players was a young man who'd work for the Bush campaign, and he wasn't only trying to spin global warming, but he was also making sure that every time NASA mentioned the Big Bang, that it was also referred to as a theory. So he, by the way, resigned after a blogger revealed that he'd apparently lied on his resume about being a college graduate.

BLOCK: Well, now NASA's inspector general has released its report. What more does it have to say about what was going on?

HARRIS: Well, first of all, it says essentially all of those allegations are true. But the inspector general also said that this was not an agency-wide plot, as some people had feared, but largely the result of a few out-of-control people in the news office who are trying to spin the NASA results to really help the Bush administration. And the people in question, by the way, were not career employees but people who really served at the pleasure of the Bush administration.

BLOCK: And what specific examples did the inspector general find at the press office?

HARRIS: Well, there's a pretty good list. One example is the press office delayed the release of a press report of a result from an ozone monitoring satellite. The explanation that they gave in internal documents was that they didn't want to put out bad news right before the November 2004 election. So those results came out in December of 2004 instead of October of 2004.

Another one was the inspector general found the news office put out dull-sounding headlines on some press releases in the hopes that people wouldn't read into them and find out that actually there might be more interesting stuff in the press release than the headline suggested.

And maybe the strangest incident had nothing to do about climate change. It was a press release about a dead solar system elsewhere in the galaxy and it was edited so references to our own solar system were removed. And the reason, according to the internal memos, was that the press office didn't want to, quote, "be frightening the public with doom-and-gloom scenarios."

BLOCK: It sounds pretty wide-ranging, Richard. How much of this affected what the public actually learned about climate change and climate change research?

HARRIS: Well, the inspector general says that it actually didn't have much an effect on that because the press office could really only get to the press releases in the related Web sites and so on that they control. But the reality is that's not the only source of information from NASA by any means. And science journalists may look at a press release to sort of get an idea of what's interesting. But if we find something that's interesting, we don't necessarily read a press release all that carefully. We go to the scientific papers and we read the papers to see what the papers actually say.

Plus, when the scientists have an opportunity to talk to us, when we decide to go off and do a story, they're not constrained by what the press office has to say. So - and I might also mention that a lot of climate scientists isn't headed by NASA at all, a lot of it - universities and other federal agencies and so on. So there's a huge body of science out there that NASA press office has no control over whatsoever.

BLOCK: Except in this one case of the scientist who was prohibited from talking, as you mentioned.

HARRIS: That's right.

BLOCK: What did the inspector general had to say about scientific research at NASA and the effects on that?

HARRIS: Well, it said, and I quote, "we found no evidence indicating that NASA blocked or interfered with the actual research activities of climate change scientists." And I might add that when you look - the scientist in question, James Hansen, actually remains one of the most outspoken and articulate people in the whole world of climate science. So it appears that NASA really has cleaned up its act here.

BLOCK: And briefly, other changes that NASA have addressed these concerns?

HARRIS: Well, they have - they went through a whole job of trying to clean it up and change the procedures and so on. And the inspector general's office says it appears as though those were successful.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Richard Harris, thanks so much.

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