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NASA Scientist Feels Pressure Over Global Warming


Today a prominent NASA scientist went public with his concerns that the government is trying to stifle his public statements about climate change. James Hansen told the New York Times and the Washington Post that the space agency has sometimes gotten in the way when he has wanted to speak to reporters about his views on how to slow global warming. He also told NPR he's concerned that science could fall victim to politics. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us now to discuss this story. Welcome, Richard.


Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOT: You spoke with James Hansen earlier today. What case did he make to you?

HARRIS: Well, this is an ongoing story. There have been numerous instances of this. But Dr. Hansen said in his view it's getting worse and worse as time goes on. And the story he told me today had to do with the speech he gave in San Francisco in December, which started out being a speech about the atmosphere and how much it can warm before the earth suffers some irreversible changes. But at the end of the speech, he turned into very personal views and he said, quote, "the special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to either the long-term impact on the planet that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren, or the long-term economic well being of our country.”

So, clearly, he had left the realm of science and was deeply in the world of policy, politics, personal view and so on here. And a reporter wanted to talk to him about it and NASA said, no, no, no, no, please don't talk to Dr. Hansen about this. Why don't you talk to his boss's boss or somebody like this in headquarters who actually had nothing to do with climate science. This upset Dr. Hansen who felt his views were being stifled.

ELLIOT: Who exactly is James Hansen?

HARRIS: Hansen is a very well-known climate scientist. He runs an institute called The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. And he has done some of the pioneering work in understanding a lot of the mechanisms of global climate change. So he is a very credible, very serious scientist. He's very highly regarded in the field of climate change.

ELLIOT: Now he's claiming that officials are trying to stop him from talking publicly but NASA officials are disputing those claims. They say government scientists are free to discuss scientific findings, but can't make statements about policy. What's the distinction between the two?

HARRIS: It is a slippery slope where you draw the line. The speech in San Francisco, clearly there's a scientific background that says we have to worry and we have to worry soon. In terms of prescriptions for what to do, the administration could make an argument. Well, you know, he's not the one to say whether we should have better auto efficiency standards or how to do it.

ELLIOT: Now is this an isolated case because of what he said during the speech or has this been a recurring problem, this tension between policy makers and scientists?

HARRIS: Every administration, really, has had some sort of rules about, talk about your science, but don't talk about the policy implications of it. I think its also fair to say that some administrations have been much better at enforcing these rules than others have and this one does it with a great deal of va-va-voom, if you will. Not just NASA, but certainly other organizations I've spoken to, people who work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration often are told, watch what you say or the agency will put a handler on the line, supposedly for the protection of the scientist against vicious reporters such as myself. But clearly it also has the effect of making the scientist extremely careful about what they say because they know what they're saying is going to be reported immediately up the chain of command.

ELLIOT: What impact does that have on their work?

HARRIS: Well, I asked Dr. Hansen whether he ever felt that he was unable to at least publish his findings in the scientific literature and he said, no he's never felt like he's restricted from publishing his results. But what he does say is that publishing the results isn't the same as communicating directly to the public. And that's where he's seeing the clampdown.

ELLIOT: NPR science correspondent, Richard Harris. Thanks for talking with us.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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