April 2, 2006
WHEN a young political appointee in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration allegedly attempted to muzzle agency climatologist James Hansen, NASA's commitment to science and learning was called into question. NASA Director Michael Griffin has issued a welcome clarification of the agency's public information policy that reaffirms the right of employees to freely discuss their work and personal opinions without screening by censors.
According to Griffin, the new policy emphasizes NASA's long-standing tradition of scientific and technical openness epitomized by the decision to televise the first Mercury launch of astronaut Alan Shepard live, "even though this left open the possibility of an embarrassing, even fatal failure being broadcast to the world."
Griffin termed as "unfortunate" the action by former NASA public information officer George Deutsch, who attempted to prevent a National Public Radio reporter from interviewing Hansen about global warming. According to a colleague, Deutsch explained that NPR was the most liberal media outlet in the United States, and his job was to make President Bush look good. The Bush administration has downplayed the threat associated with climate change.
Hansen told The New York Times that the new policy is a substantial improvement and "things have changed dramatically since this became a public issue ... hopefully similar things will happen at other agencies that have had problems."
The new NASA guidelines prohibit the editing of reports to alter scientific data, as well as any public affairs management of NASA projects by non-agency institutions. In a key section, the document declares that NASA scientists may draw conclusions from their research and communicate them to the media, but "must make clear that they are presenting their individual views — not the views of the agency — and ask that they be sourced as such."
Griffin himself ran afoul of that stricture last week. In a speech to a Rotary Club-sponsored gala in Houston, Griffin appeared to endorse U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, whose district includes the Johnson Space Center. "The space program has had no better friend in its entire existence than Tom DeLay," Griffin told the crowd, which included DeLay. "He's still with us and we need to keep him there."
NASA officials later denied the statement constituted an endorsement and Griffin said he regretted his "inartful choice of words." Perhaps the incident will give him a little more insight into the fine line NASA employees must follow in speaking for themselves rather than the space agency.