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NOAA under fire in freedom-to-speak row

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has come under fire in a row over the freedom of grant-receiving scientists to speak out on public issues.

Controversy erupted after the organisation denied a petition from an environmental advocacy group seeking to amend its policies in order to allow beneficiaries of NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program to take positions on issues of public debate.

NOAA’s decision was dated 1 June but was delivered more than three weeks later.

In a June 29 statement, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) stated that NOAA’s denial of its petition meant that the agency would “continue to forbid scientists who receive its marine research grants from speaking out on matters of public concern even as private citizens”.

As a result, PEER said, academics must avoid advocacy “at all costs” or risk being stripped of NOAA Sea Grant funding, under official guidance that remained in effect.

PEER filed its petition in December 2009, after the University of Alaska withdrew federal Sea Grant funding from Rick Steiner—a prominent marine scientist—under pressure from NOAA officials who complained about his “advocacy” for marine conservation.

According to PEER, Steiner came under attack by NOAA officials for speaking at a news conference protesting a pro-oil industry slant in a Sea Grant conference on proposed petroleum development in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Earlier this month NOAA circulated a draft Scientific Integrity Policy that affirmed the ability of its employees to express “personal” viewpoints in their fields: according to PEER, this policy would not apply to grantees.

The text of the draft NOAA policy reads: “NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints within their area of professional expertise that extend beyond science to incorporate personal opinion but must make clear they are presenting their individual opinions when doing so.”

PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, commented: “It makes no sense that NOAA agency scientists would be free to speak out but academic scientists who receive NOAA Sea Grants are not.”

He pointed out that it took NOAA over 18 months to issue a denial of the PEER petition.

Steiner, who resigned his professorship after the conflict, said that “If the US wants to restore ocean health and integrity, then NOAA Sea Grant has to allow and encourage conservation perspectives to be voiced publicly by scientists it funds.

“The denial of the PEER petition, which had simply asked NOAA to do just that, is a clear sign that NOAA remains clueless as to the desperate state of the ocean and their responsibility for correcting it,” he said.