Has NASA’s press office gone too far?
One scientist’s complaint of censorship has put the spotlight on NASA.
Is NASA engaging in censorship, or just running a tight ship? That’s the question regarding allegations published in the New York Times last weekend that NASA tried to prevent one of its foremost climate researchers, James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, from speaking to the press.
Hansen made a speech on 6 December at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco calling for prompt action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions — a message that runs against the grain of the Bush administration's current policies. Since then, Hansen told the Times, NASA's public affairs office in Washington has insisted on screening material he presents to the public, and on one occasion an agency press officer turned down a journalist's request for an interview with Hansen.
House Science committee chairman
Hansen may not be alone in his complaint.
Steven Beckwith, a Johns Hopkins University astronomer and former head of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, says NASA has been known to "forbid its staff from talking to the press"; this includes at least one agency scientist he knows of who spoke out on the politically sensitive subject of whether the Hubble Space Telescope’s life should be extended.
While Beckwith sympathizes with NASA’s desire to coordinate information that goes out to the public, he says agency officials can sometimes be “too controlling for their own good.”
But David Goldston, who is chief of staff for the House Science Committee, says that “it does not appear to be a generic problem”. “We do not believe that [NASA Administrator] Mike Griffin wants or is telling others to stifle scientists in any way,” he told email@example.com.
Dean Acosta, NASA’s press secretary and himself a political appointee, is unapologetic about the agency’s need to control what its employees, including the scientists, are saying.
In a statement last week, Acosta said, “Our policy — which is similar to that of any other federal agency, corporation or news organization, is that any NASA employee speaking on the record, issuing a press release, or posting information on our website, must coordinate such activities with the Office of Public Affairs. No exceptions.”
But House Science committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, New York) wants to make sure “message control” doesn’t cross over into censorship. Boehlert has ordered his staff to look into the matter, and issued his own statement last week charging that “NASA is clearly doing something wrong, given the sense of intimidation felt by Dr. Hansen.”
Goldston says he is still trying to understand what actually happened between Hansen and NASA headquarters. “The reality is going to be more complicated than either [NASA’s position of] ‘all we wanted was advance notification’, and some grand conspiracy designed systematically, from the top, to crack down on Jim Hansen and his ilk,” Goldston told firstname.lastname@example.org. “The truth is in between those two.”
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