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So is it oversight, or is it harassment? Those are two different views of an investigation being carried out by Republican Lamar Smith. He is chairman of the House Science Committee in Congress. And he's investigating a major study on climate change by government researchers. He says he's performing his oversight duties as a lawmaker. But NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that today, some 600 scientists and engineers, including former employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - or NOAA - are sending letters to the head of that agency, telling her to keep fighting against political interference in science.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: All of this started in June, when the prestigious journal Science published a study on climate change that was big news. NPR covered it.
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AUDIE CORNISH: Now a revision on how much the planet has been warming.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The study showed there had been no slowdown or pause in warming over the last couple decades, as researchers had previously thought. The so-called global warming hiatus had been a favorite talking point for conservatives who doubt the scientific consensus on climate change. But NOAA researcher Tom Karl told NPR...
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TOM KARL: We think the data no longer supports the notion of having a hiatus.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That got the attention of Lamar Smith. He's a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Science Committee.
LAMAR SMITH: I have a couple of concerns about the study. One, the timing is very suspicious, right before the climate meeting in Paris.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says whistleblowers have told him the study was rushed into publication. And he says it did not include satellite data.
L. SMITH: They left out the gold standard when it comes to determining what the global temperature has been and by - therefore sort of cherry picking their data, it didn't seem to me to be a completely honest study.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And you don't think the normal, scientific peer review process that would take place at a high-profile journal like Science would flag something like cherry picking data?
L. SMITH: No, I don't think that Science Magazine had access to a whistleblower like we did saying it had been rushed and had not been sufficiently peer-reviewed. And you know, Science Magazine may have its own bias. I don't know. Maybe they wanted to rush it out before the Paris summit as well.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It's the world's largest multidisciplinary science society. Jesse Smith is an editor there. He says satellite data is irrelevant. This study dealt with sea surface temperature measurements from ships and buoys. And, he says, the review process took longer than normal.
JESSE SMITH: We subjected the paper to even more scrutiny than we subject most papers to.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So if someone's going around saying that your journal is, like, shoddy and missing obvious points and, like, rushing things - I mean, do you take this personally at all?
J. SMITH: No. It's misguided and uninformed. So I can't really take it personally.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The executive publisher of Science and the head of the association is Rush Holt. He's a physicist who spent over a decade in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from New Jersey.
RUSH HOLT: The scientific process is modern civilization's best means for arriving at reliable truth. And that process should be allowed to work without political meddling.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What really bugged him was that Smith had issued a subpoena for tons of documents, including scientists' emails.
HOLT: You don't issue subpoenas to scientists for doing their conscientious work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: You've served in Congress. Do you think issuing subpoenas for something like this is an abuse of power?
HOLT: It's certainly an abuse of subpoenas.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The subpoena is why Jim Buizer decided to sign the new letter that urges NOAA's administrator to keep protecting scientists from politics. Buizer is a climate expert who used to work for NOAA. Now he's at the University of Arizona. He says in the past, emails taken out of context have been used to cast doubt on the work of climate researchers.
JIM BUIZER: We don't have anything to hide. It's just that people don't understand how we work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A rule change earlier this year made it easier for the House science chair to issue subpoenas. Andrew Rosenberg at the Union of Concerned Scientists worries that more will be coming.
ANDREW ROSENBERG: This one is to investigate scientists who produced a result he doesn't like. I think what he's doing is bullying. I think it's intimidation tactics.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Asked if he was bullying scientists, Lamar Smith says he is responsible for conducting oversight.
L. SMITH: And when I see government agencies using taxpayers' dollars and not coming up with studies that I think are based upon good data and good evidence and good science, then I think not only do the people have a right to know that. Their representatives in Congress have a right to know that as well.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says NOAA is resisting his request for information.
L. SMITH: Which, of course, would naturally make people suspicious.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: NOAA's spokesperson, Ciaran Clayton, says all of the study's data is public and on the agency's website. The scientists who did the study twice met with committee staffers to answer questions.
CIARAN CLAYTON: We feel we've provided all the information that the committee needs to understand the issue.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Smith's latest request for NOAA documents says his first priority isn't communications from scientists but certain other NOAA staffers. He wants those documents by December 15. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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