This is just a quick note that I have an Op-Ed appearing in the Baltimore Sun today. I discuss how the United States has seen a slow erosion in the appreciation for and respect of science. We need to recognize this trend, and fight back by engaging with our fellow citizens on scientific topics.
10 Ways You Can Be a Better Advocate for Science
This Saturday, marches in support of science will be held in hundreds of cities across the globe. The event should be an excellent opportunity to reinject science back into the public consciousness.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society, held an event on April 19 offering advice on how to advocate for science beyond the march. Here I share some of their strategies for interacting with Congress, the media, and the public.
Despite what many people think, citizens can influence Congress. In fact, a survey of those in positions of authority within Congressional offices reported that when their representative has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, contact from a constituent is about five times more persuasive than from a lobbyist.
Being influential, however, is about more than just being right. Congressional offices receive roughly 250 requests per day, so there are a few things you can do to stand out in an office that is essentially a triage unit.
- Ask for something concrete your representative can realistically deliver on.
- Explain why it is urgent.
- Make your pitch concise (< 10 minutes) and develop a one-page handout to leave after the meeting. Keep politics out of it!
- Be engaging! Tell a real story, preferably about someone who has one foot in your world, and one foot in your representative’s.
While your initial contacts with an office may be met with no response, be persistent. You can get that meeting!
Scientists are considered the most trustworthy spokespersons for science. But communicating effectively with the media requires that you do your homework and know your audience (e.g. business, technical, students).
You will want to have a well-honed, practiced elevator pitch. It should succinctly lay out the research problem, why it matters, and what the take home message is (i.e. what you can say that will lead to a longer conversation). You can always bridge back to it if you get questions you are not ready for, or if the interview otherwise is not going smoothly. Ask the reporter how they plan to frame the article. Use that as an opportunity to correct any inaccuracies.
It’s advantageous to build personal relationships with journalists. Inviting them to visit your laboratory, sending them relevant background information, connecting on social media, and just generally being cordial can help you become a trusted and go-to source.
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself when communicating science to the public is, “Why am I doing this?” Perhaps it is to increase interest in science, or to share knowledge. Maybe you want to inspire the next generation to enter the discipline, or increase trust between scientists and the public.
Once you are clear about your purpose, abide by these tenets:
- Don’t “dumb down” your science or treat your audience like idiots. Disdain is an ineffective communication technique.
- Ditch the jargon. For example, the public has a different understanding of the phrase “positive feedback” than scientists do. Instead use something more clearly understood, like “vicious cycle.”
- Create a dialogue so that you know where your audience is at. Let them know they are being heard.
- Reverse the order of a scientific talk. Start with the conclusions, explain why the issue matters, then finish with the background details.
Be enthusiastic! Put your own face on science and demonstrate what keeps you motivated. Offer solutions, and sidestep landmines (e.g. focus on clean energy with someone who thinks climate change is a hoax).
Doing all of this on your own can be daunting and time consuming. Know the resources to make your life easier. Contact your university, institute, or relevant scientific society to collect their outreach materials. Find groups in your local community that you can partner with, like those who are already gathering an audience and where you might be permitted to speak.
There are many other available resources. Research!America holds science communication workshops that train people to better communicate medical research. Spectrum Science Communications helps “develop unique stories that create game-changing conversations to influence audiences and differentiate your brand.” AAAS is launching an advocacy toolkit, and many disciplinary organizations, like the Society for Neuroscience and American Physical Society have their own resources.
Jerry Brown Spits Hot Fire at Meeting of the American Geophysical Union
California governor Jerry Brown was a guest speaker at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco on December 14, 2016. A strong supporter and defender of science, Jerry Brown gave an impassioned speech regarding how California was going to stand up to the threats against science posed by the Trump administration. The governor’s spirit should serve as inspiration to scientists everywhere.
Here are some notable quotes from the address:
What a Trump Presidency Means for Science
Donald Trump’s election has worried many Americans for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons – and one that was largely ignored during the campaign – is its impact on science. Given Trump’s lack of firm policy proposals and occasionally contradictory statements, there is much uncertainty in this regard. For that reason, I want to delve into what we can expect from the new Republican establishment in three key areas – science funding, climate change, and the role of science in government.
In all likelihood, the amount that the U.S. spends funding scientific research will be tightly linked to our total discretionary spending (i.e. non-military, non-entitlement). Trump has promised to dramatically increase military spending, keep entitlements fixed, and lower taxes without increasing the deficit. Discretionary spending would have to be cut under that scenario. While a budget for the current fiscal year (FY 2016-17) was supposed to be passed by October 1, Congress didn’t get it done in time. When this happens, they will pass a continuing resolution (CR) that continues funding the current year at the previous year’s levels.
That puts us in a position where one of two things is likely to happen. Either the current Congress can attempt to complete its own budget by the end of the year or, if it better serves their priorities, the Republicans can decide to pass another CR and wait to start fresh in 2017.
A continuing resolution may or may not be good news for scientists. The current proposed budget contains funding increases for some scientific agencies that could be lost if it goes unpassed. On the other hand, waiting until next year introduces the risk of significant spending cuts. Some of that money would probably be returned to the states, and could be redistributed to scientists through different channels, though that is far from guaranteed. Either way, scientific grants typically last for three to five years, so expect any funding changes to take years to work their way through the system.
It is important to distinguish between science that is nonideological, like health research, and that which has become ideological, like climate change. On the latter issue, Donald Trump has famously called climate change a “hoax” invented by the Chinese to reduce American competitiveness, a statement that ignores the substantial progress China is making in reducing its own emissions.
Trump has also expressed a desire increase usage of fossil fuels (including “clean coal”) and pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. While we are bound to this international treaty for at least the next four years, the President could opt to ignore its non-binding emissions targets. Failing to meet our commitments would diminish America’s moral authority and could disincentivize other nations, like India, from meeting their own targets.
America’s emissions pledges were based on a number of Obama-driven policies, like the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The CPP will almost certainly be killed (expect legal challenges), but removing the federal requirement will not impede states from proceeding on their own, which many are. Furthermore, a Trump administration will be largely powerless to undo the economic forces that are leading to coal’s decline, chiefly the low price of natural gas.
Trump has expressed a desire to eliminate the EPA, but the agency will be difficult to do away with altogether, as this requires congressional approval and will be met by extremely strong political resistance. Heading the agency with noted climate denier Myron Ebell, as has been rumored, will not help matters, though. Ebell has called for the Senate to prohibit funding for the Paris agreement and the U.N.F.C.C.
However, the federal government is obligated under the 1970 Clean Air Act to regulate the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Republicans may choose to defund the agency’s regulation efforts, an action that will almost certainly meet legal resistance from environmental groups and large swaths of the general public. While the Republicans will not be able to ignore the scientific evidence and mounting public pressure forever, any delay in implementation would be especially damaging given how far behind the curve we already are in our mitigation efforts.
Given Trump’s strong pro-fossil fuel statements, it’s possible that the Keystone XL pipeline will be approved by the U.S. State Department. Financial support for federally funded renewable energy technologies are at risk. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has already requested of Trump’s transition team a rollback of the 54.5 miles per gallon fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025.
A more general question is what role science will take within a Trump administration. President Obama nominated his chief science advisor John Holdren on inaugration day, signaling the position’s importance to his administration. Trump’s transition has been far less organized, and he has given little indication who his science advisor will be or what role they will serve. Even a qualified appointee could be effectively neutered if the Office of Science and Technology Policy (the office they would head) was disempowered, or if they were unable to permeate Trump’s inner circle. This position requires Senate confirmation, so it could potentially go unfilled for some time.
This would clearly be a mistake, as the next administration must be ready for future disasters like Deepwater Horizon or viral outbreaks that require being scientifically literate. It is unclear whether President Trump would prioritize the best scientific evidence over political considerations. The new administration will also have to consider whether the U.S. is to remain an active participant in international scientific enterprises like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and whether there will be free movement of researchers. Trump’s tax proposals will answer whether he intends to incentivize private investment in basic research.
Executive agencies like the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are populated by career civil servants, many of whom are institutionally difficult to fire in order to protect them against political transitions. However, Trump has suggested downsizing the federal workforce by instituting a hiring freeze, reducing their job security, and reducing agency funding.
Even though Trump has expressed an interest in cutting the Department of Education, STEM education should largely be safe, especially since only about 10% of education funding comes from the federal government. Even Republicans realize that a highly educated workforce is a prerequisite for our international competitiveness.
Historically, science has been one of the few bipartisan issues. I suspect this will largely continue at the budgetary level, though the priorities may shift. I have reason to worry about federal climate mitigation efforts, but wonder whether Trump’s lack of a fully competent transition team might lead some lesser-known scientific programs to experience a kind of benign neglect. Either way, we must remain vigilant to ensure science is being represented as it should be.
Debunking the Notion That Climate Scientists Are Just in it for the Money
The principle of American democracy is rooted in the “marketplace of ideas,” a notion that public policies are best developed through the honest and open deliberation of a wide variety of ideas. But the “marketplace” has strained of late. Our national challenges have grown more complex and the voices opining on them more numerous. From health care to energy policy to net neutrality, resolving modern problems requires more than an application of philosophy – it demands scientific literacy and an understanding of our national scientific apparatus.
Unfortunately, instead of facilitating discourse there are many who are content to muddy the waters. One of the worst offenders is conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. During his June 22, 2011 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show he spoke once again on one of his “pet peeve issues,” climate change. Limbaugh, who has long rejected the consensus scientific conclusion that that Earth’s climate is changing and that human beings are responsible, was offering a new explanation for climate scientists’ behavior.
“They’ve been paid,” Limbaugh argued. “Their entire lifestyles, their standard of living depends on their grants that they get to conduct the studies, and they only get the money if they come up with the right result.”
One might be willing to dismiss such an inflammatory statement as isolated bloviation from one of media’s biggest loudmouths, if only it were an isolated incident. It is far from that. Similar statements have been made by authors, pundits, politicians, and even a handful of disgruntled scientists. In a speech to New Hampshire businessmen, former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry echoed Limbaugh’s remarks referencing “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”
Statements such as these are not only slanderous, they are dangerous. Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our generation. It promises to deliver a warmer climate, droughts, floods, food and water scarcity, rising sea levels, and the death of 25-50% of Earth’s species (just to name a few) if not properly mitigated.
It is for these reasons that the profoundly misleading assaults on scientists’ basic integrity are so worrisome. The need to restore public faith in our scientific institutions warrants a substantive clarification about both the roles scientists play in society and the actual manner in which their research is funded.
In general, there are two classes of scientist – public and private. Public climate scientists are employed by government institutions like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA’s premiere climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, explains how public scientists are compensated saying, “Our salaries do not depend on how much research the government funds. Government scientists get paid for working 40 hours week, regardless of how long they work.”
Furthermore, to prevent against politically motivated terminations public scientists receive considerable protection from being fired. In such an environment scientists have little to fear from publishing results that cut across the grain since neither their compensation nor their job security depends on it.
Private climate scientists, on the other hand, are often employed by universities and must actively seek their own research funding. One common source is America’s collection of federal science agencies. There are many, but one of the most prominent is the National Science Foundation, an agency which supports about 20% of all federally funded basic research conducted in US universities. Its funding process is typical of agencies of this kind, so it is worth examining its appropriations process in greater detail.
Scientists apply for research grants by first submitting a research proposal. According to NSF criteria, successful proposals must demonstrate that their prospective research be of high academic quality, have high and hopefully broad significance, and preferably be transformative. Proposals are merit-reviewed by a panel of independent experts in the field and the top submissions receive grants to continue their work. This process is highly competitive. Of the approximately 45,000 proposals received each year, the NSF only funds about 11,500.
One noteworthy observation is that a plausible alternative to the theory to human-driven climate change satisfies all of these criteria. According to the National Academy of Sciences, between 97% and 98% of climate scientists actively publishing in the field currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. Clearly, a plausible alternative would constitute a great scientific advancement, one which would likely have ramifications beyond climate science itself. So not only are “climate skeptics” not penalized in the grant process, if their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.
There are other factors that weigh in a climate skeptic’s favor. First, any scientist who can debunk a scientific paradigm (as Einstein did with his general theory of relativity) in favor of a better theory will earn prestige and a likely place for his name in science textbooks. This is a huge incentive to challenge the status quo. Second, if a professor has tenure, then he needn’t fear reprisal from his employer for conducting controversial research. Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a representative plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators, which mitigates consensus groupthink. Fourth, scientists are skeptical by nature. They assume their knowledge is incomplete and are always acting to refine it. Scientists will tell you that one of the most exciting events for them is when an experimental result completely defies theoretical expectation. It is in these moments that new truths are often revealed. Scientists yearn for these moments. They do not penalize the search for them.
The final point I’ll make about the public grant process is simple common sense. It’s functionally impossible for allocators to only fund “pro-climate change” research when the results of that research are unknown until it is conducted. And even if you suspect incoming research proposals must tacitly accept anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist, an organization dedicated to explaining peer reviewed climate change research, reveals that approximately half of climate research papers do not explicitly endorse the consensus opinion, but rather function primarily as fact-finding missions. Those missions in total have created the consensus opinion, but scientists did not have to assume it before receiving their funding.
The other method by which private scientists obtain research support is by courting private donors and corporations who have a vested interest in it. For lots of basic research, this process of pitching for funds is a huge hassle. As the Microsoft computer scientist and Turing Award winner Jim Gray once put it, “Sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince.”
Except in certain cases the prince comes to you. Mitigating climate change requires a reorganization of large sectors of our economy. Consequently, corporations that stand to suffer financially in the transition have a strong incentive to spread disinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so.
In such cases, the exact opposite of Limbaugh’s argument is proven true. Scientists willing to research alternatives to anthropogenic climate change often receive funding because they reject the consensus opinion. In fact, research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation has found that in an analysis of 900 papers supporting climate change skepticism, 90% of the authors were linked to ExxonMobil.
As Dr. Hansen argues, “Perhaps, instead of questioning the motives of scientists, you should turn around and check the interests (motives) of the people who have pushed you to become so agitated.”
Once the public understands the true manner in which climate science is funded, it will ultimately need to ask itself which is more likely – that A) 97% of all active climate scientists have independently come together to collectively pull the wool over the world’s eyes and perpetrate the greatest scientific hoax of all time for unclear motives or B) moneyed interests like oil and coal companies who stand to lose profit in a world that addresses climate change are spreading doubt and disinformation as a means to forestall action.
Given the current state of media in the United States, the condition in which we find ourselves is not altogether surprising. Thinner margins have driven many newspapers and other news outlets to lay off dedicated science reporters. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, ratings reign supreme and viewers are more likely to tune into conflict and controversy than a nuanced discussion of the facts. Even when climate science is given the coverage it deserves, the media will often mistake journalistic balance with “hearing all sides of an issue.” Granting climate skeptics equal air time with members of the 97% majority is akin to presenting the opinions of an Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened.
Ultimately, it will fall upon scientists to lift the haze of misunderstanding that surrounds their work. They will need to be more vocal in communicating not just the science, but the process of practicing science. Only when the public gains an understanding of the scientific process will the baseless claim of Limbaugh and his sympathizers be exposed be exposed as the myth that it is.
Featured image: “Dollar Sign in Space – Illustration” by DonkeyHotey, used under CC BY 2.0 / slightly modified and black borders added to original
FOIA – We Are Making Progress
This is final part of a 5 part series on the government’s silence of silence and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Parts 1 through 4 can and should be read first:
Part 1: The Kingston Disaster
Part 2: The Government’s Silence of Science
Part 3: Freedom of Information Act to the Rescue?
Part 4: The Obama Failure
In brief, these articles describe how scientific research gathered by the United States government is often withheld from the general public, a type of action that can quite literally put lives at risk. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed to allow public access to these records, but both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have so far failed to live up to the promise of the act.
But while there have been substantial challenges with gaining access to important public information, it’s not all doom and gloom. The fact that we actually have a Freedom of Information Act with an appeals process and judicial review is significant. The Act continues to have strong support in the NGO community. A FOIAonline portal has been built with the goal of eventually becoming a one-stop shop for public information. The Obama administration has taken a strong positive step at Data.gov to “increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” This initiative has already saved on infrastructure costs.
And we have had disclosure successes. In 2008 the United States improved the Consumer Product Safety Act and created a searchable database for consumer information. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center and EPA have done an admirable job of reporting on historical climate variables like temperature, precipitation and drought. The US Embassy in Beijing has made electronic reports of air quality public when the Chinese government refused to do so. The federal ENERGY STAR program labels the energy footprint of appliances to aid consumers in making more energy efficient purchases.
Inside federal agencies, it would appear that some progress is being made. In 2013 UCS released a report entitled Grading Government Transparency in which they examined the ability of scientists at federal agencies to speak freely about their work. They found that many agencies’ media policies “have shown significant improvement since 2008.” In particular they note that scientists can now more easily apply their right to express personal views provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency.
This right was made considerably easier to exercise when on November 13, 2012, after an arduous 14 year journey, Congress unanimously passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. This act, for the first time, provides specific legal protection to scientists and other federal employees who expose censorship or suppression of federal research. According to Celia Wexler of the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS), “We hope that this law will begin a process to change the culture of federal agencies when it comes to whistleblowers. People who protect the public from unsafe drugs, tainted food, defective products, and environmental hazards should not fear for their jobs when they speak up for safety and scientific integrity.”
Since then, other steps have been taken to make it easier for the public to obtain government information. On May 9, 2013 President Obama issued an executive order making open and machine readable data the new default for government information. Citing examples like weather data and the Global Positioning System (GPS), the president argued that making federal data freely available “can help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery – all of which improve Americans’ lives.”
Then, on February 25, 2014 the US House of Representatives unanimously passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act. This amendment to the Freedom of Information Act would create a single, free website from which all FOIA requests could be made. When requests are granted, federal agencies would have to release the information in an electronic and publicly accessible format. When requests are denied, the appeals process would be streamlined. The amendment also forces federal agencies to take greater responsibility for their FOIA obligations.
As we see, the system can work. But there will always be disagreements between the public and federal agencies regarding which information should be disclosed through FOIA and which should be withheld for security reasons. When public actors feel their claims have been rejected unjustly, they can always consider seeking subpoenas.
Absent that, there are other options at their disposal to extract greater value out of the information that is public. Private technology companies can offer tools for the sharing and analysis of data. Librarians can play a more prominent role in gathering and organizing documents.
When the information being disseminated is incorrect, knowledgeable scientists should take action. They can start issue blogs and connect with members of the media. Local groups like city councils rarely hear from scientists, so researchers can have an outsized impact in regional issues. As members of one of the most respected professions, scientists would do well to build relationships with congressional representatives or their science staffers. Failure to act means allowing dissembling voices fill the vacuum.
With respect to government disclosure, as with most things, the situation is neither entirely good nor bad. But it is hard to deny that at times we Americans live in a perverse, ironic ecosystem – one in which taxpayers fund government research designed to inform and protect, only to have that same government deny us the results and claim it’s for our protection. We must continue to hold our government accountable, push for transparency where appropriate and never yield to private interests who would use our ignorance against us.
The Obama Failure
This is Part 4 of a 5 part series on the government’s silence of silence and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Parts 1, 2 and 3 can and should be read first:
Part 1: The Kingston Disaster
Part 2: The Government’s Silence of Science
Part 3: Freedom of Information Act to the Rescue?
In brief, these articles describe how scientific research gathered by the United States government is often withheld from the general public, a type of action that can quite literally put lives at risk. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed to allow public access to these records, but we discovered that for a number of reasons, the George W. Bush administration was overly eager to deny such requests.
Many of those critical of the Bush administration’s handling of FOIA requests hoped that the situation would improve under the Obama administration. In fact, one of the new President’s first actions in office was to issue the following instruction, essentially reversing the Ashcroft Memo:
All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.
This memo was part of Obama’s Open Government Initiative, “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” Yet surprisingly, government transparency barely improved from the Bush administration and, according to some journalists, got worse. A full 30% gave him a grade of poor to very poor. Recently, OpenTheGovernment.org released an assessment saying that many sophisticated users of FOIA remain tremendously disappointed with the law’s implementation.
There are between 600,000 and 650,000 FOIA requests per year. While less busy agencies can respond within a few weeks, larger agencies like the Department of Defense are flooded with more requests than they have the resources to meet. In these cases, FOIA compliance has effectively become an unfunded mandate. The situation is worsened by the fact that many agency employees are overworked, undertrained, and generally unclear of their obligations under FOIA.
A Bloomberg News investigation last year set out to test the quality of current FOIA compliance. A team of reporters submitted the same FOIA request, for the travel expenses of top agency officials, to 57 agencies. 19 of 20 cabinet-level agencies did not comply within the mandated 20 day window. Even “well past that legal deadline,” about half of the agencies had still not fulfilled the request.
In some cases information is available, but in a form that mitigates its usefulness. Despite Obama’s promise of an online data repository, many information requests still need to be made in person. A significant number of records remain incomplete or redacted. Often data is not in a convenient format like PDFs or tables. Nonuniformity abounds. At the SEC there are different record systems in every department.
There is no uniform method to submit a FOIA request. Some agencies accept submissions by e-mail and others by fax. Some ask the user to complete a web form. Requests to the IRS must actually be sent by post.
Despite President Obama’s vow to “restore science to its rightful place,” scientists who wish to reach out to the public about their research findings were routinely prohibited by public affairs, removing the power of interpretation from data that rarely speaks for itself. They are often denied the right to review, prior to publication, the final versions of reports to which their names are attached or to which their research contributed. Even their ability to obtain access to drafts and revisions of such reports is limited.
The need for scientists to comment on their research is exemplified in the case of the Safe Water Drinking Act. Even though this act requires water utilities to “directly” issue customers water quality reports, the reports are often so technical as to be practically useless. (A water utility proposal to only issue the reports online would further disenfranchise those without Internet access.)
Even if adequate information is ultimately disclosed, delays can mitigate its usefulness. An environmental assessment of TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline was criticized by many as giving insufficient consideration to its effects on the climate. The report’s integrity was further compromised when it was discovered that the authors had not only been previously employed by TransCanada, but had published a similarly positive assessment of a Peruvian liquified natural gas pipeline which has since racked up an abysmal environmental and social track record.
These and other concerns were meant to be addressed during a 45-day public comment period, but the State Department (which commissioned the report and has final say on the pipeline’s approval) declined to release those comments, a practice that is routine at other agencies. A FOIA request was submitted, but when an approval decision is expected in the “near term,” any delay in meeting the request can limit the public’s ability to meaningfully influence the outcome.
In fifth and final part of this series I describe how it’s not all doom and gloom! I will outline some of FOIA’s successes as well as highlight improvements that offer hope for the future.
Freedom of Information Act to the Rescue?
This is Part 3 of a 5-part series on the government’s silence of silence and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Parts 1 and 2 should be read first and can be found here:
Part 1: The Kingston Disaster
Part 2: The Government’s Silence of Science
In brief, these articles describe the circumstances surrounding the rupturing of a coal fly ash containment pond in Roane County, Tennessee. Government sponsored research that reported the health and environmental risks of such ponds was buried, redacted or otherwise hidden from public view.
Problems such as these were meant to be addressed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Enacted in 1966, FOIA grants the public the legal right (also referred to as sunshine laws) to request information from the federal government. It “provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure.”
The spirit of FOIA embodies the essence of our American democracy. We hold that a representative government by the people can, through its collective capacity, understand and prescribe solutions to threats against us. We hold that a representative government for the people will utilize such knowledge for the security of its citizenry. We hold that a representative government of the people will be served by the sacred trust we bestow upon our elected leaders.
Instead, we find that our government often defaults to the interests of a select few, frequently under the guise of security. The precedent was codified in the 2001 Ashcroft Memo in which the then-Attorney General reassured agencies that their deliberations would remain confidential so long as they were “safeguarding our national security, enhancing the effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies, protecting sensitive business information and, not least, preserving personal privacy.”
Attorney General Ashcroft concluded to the agencies, “When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis.”
Of course, there are many sensitive issues for which government secrecy is in the national interest. But the Ashcroft Memo established a sweeping protection for agencies to deny data from the general public as long as they could make some argument about how disclosure would jeopardize law enforcement effectiveness, security, business or privacy. Given that nearly every issue of import touches at least one of these four categories, FOIA requirements could essentially be ignored at the government’s discretion.
The Bush administration took full advantage of this latitude. When a 2004 EPA study recommended that hydrofracking fluids, which are injected into the ground during the shale gas extraction process, be regulated under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, then-Vice President Cheney intervened. Using the business provision of the Ashcroft memo, Cheney had the study redacted by claiming it revealed “trade secrets.”
This secrecy has consequences. When leaks and spills contaminate local streams and water supplies, scientists are limited in assessing the impacts. Without knowledge of leaks’ chemical compositions regulation is difficult to justify and contamination is hard, if not impossible, to detect. All of this serves to reduce the gas industry’s accountability for harms it might cause. This attendant ambiguity made it easier to pass a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that explicitly exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Water Drinking Act.
It is easy to imagine other circumstances in which the “trade secrets” clause could prove dangerous. If a train, truck or barge carrying hazardous, but classified, materials were to crash, the secrecy exemption could put first responders in grave risk.
Sometimes, the government decides that even admitting records exist will damage national security or lead to stigmatization. This justifies the so-called “Glomar response” which allows agencies “to neither confirm nor deny” (read: ignore) FOIA requests. The Department of Justice, the agency responsible for FOIA enforcement, has broadly supported this right on numerous occasions.
While about 70 countries have their own forms of FOIA, many are plagued by similar issues. Ireland allows easier access to documents, but many remain unsigned which reduces accountability. Israel does have an appeals process, but such a request can take years and there are no real penalties for non-compliance. Even in the European Union, which tends to be more open, the scope of the right remains unclear partly because of the governments’ unwillingness or outright failure to clarify the issue.
In part 4 of this series, we will examine how the widespread hope offered by President Obama’s Open Government Initiative has largely gone unmet.
My Baltimore Sun Op-Ed Has Been Published
I encourage everyone to check it out by clicking here. According to the Baltimore Sun’s publishing rules, they maintain 30-day exclusivity rights over the piece, so I won’t be able to post it on my website until mid-January.
This opinion piece, which was months in the making, highlights the extreme lack of scientific expertise in the halls of Congress. It gives examples, lists negative impacts and demonstrates how having at least some scientists in charge would be beneficial for the entire country. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that climate change takes center stage in my argument.
Now here’s a little inside baseball. I’ve actually been pretty successful in getting my opinion pieces published in newspapers. I had my two previous letters to the editor (one on offshore drilling and the other on Keystone XL) published in the Baltimore Sun and one of those also in the NJ Star Ledger. Basically I was batting a thousand until this article.
So then a few weeks ago I submit a version through the Baltimore Sun website and hear nothing for like two weeks. Of course I’m thinking that they chose not to run it. So one morning I just decide to rewrite the entire thing. I kept certain phrases, but it was a total reorganization and shifting of the thesis. After bouncing it off some people, I resubmitted.
About three days later I get an email from the Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. She thought my first submission was interesting and well put together, but my contact info was cut off and she couldn’t respond! When I sent the second article, she recognized it as a variation of the first, got my phone number and email and we went ahead. In the end, the version you see here is a marriage of those two drafts.
I plan to extend this into a longer form article in the near future. After all, there’s a lot more than 750 words to say about this topic. I’m still trying to figure out where I can get it published (Science? Scientific American? American Physical Society News?). I’ve never done this before, so I welcome any advice.
Climate and Energy Primary Sources
There are tons of organizations that have done research related to energy, climate and policy. Over the years I’ve aggregated a (non-comprehensive) list of those agencies. If you would like to suggest additions, either post them in the comments or tweet them to me @mspecian and I’ll update the list.
Advanced Energy Economy
Alliance for Climate Protection
American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy
American Energy Innovation Council
American Security Project
American Wind Energy Association
Better Buildings Neighborhood Program from DOE
Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Carbon Tracker Initiative
Center for American Progress
Center for Climate Strategies
Center for Investigative Reporting
Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association
Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM)
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research – Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites
E3G – Change Elements for Sustainable Development
Economics and Equity for the Environment (E3)
Economic Outlook Group
Energy Information Administration
Energy Self Reliant States
Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental Research Letters
European Wind Energy Association
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
Friends of the Earth UK
German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW)
Global CCS Institute
Global Warming Policy Foundation
Google Earth Engine
Green Scissors Project
GTM Research (and energy consultancy)
Institute for Local Self Reliance
Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (in Beijing)
Insurance Information Institute
International Council on Clean Transportation
International Research Institute for Climate and Society
InVEST – Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services & Tradeoffs
Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory
League of Conservation Voters
Major Economies Forum
MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change
Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Drought Mitigation Center
National Latino Coalition on Climate Change
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) – National Climatic Data Center
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
National Wildlife Federation
Natural Resources Defense Council
The Nature Conservancy
North American Reliability Corporation
Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership
Pecan Street – R&D on advanced technologies, advanced energy systems, and human interactions with them
Rocky Mountain Institute
Safe Climate Campaign
Scott Polar research Institute at Cambridge University
Solar Energy Industries Association
Southwest Climate Change Network
Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS)
Union of Concerned Scientists
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
US Climate Change Science Program
US Defense Department
US Energy Information Administration
US Global Change Research Program
US Historical Climate Network (USHCN)
US Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC)
US Transportation Department – Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
World Climate Research Programme
World Resources and Environmental Law
World Resources Institute
Zero Emissions Platform
Environmental Research Letters
Journal of Climate
Journal of Geophysics Research
Geophysical Research Letters