U.S. climate agency NOAA loosens media restraints

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The lead U.S. government agency for climate and weather research unveiled a new policy that will allow its scientists to speak freely to the media and the public about their research without prior permission, the agency’s administrator said on Wednesday.

“This policy is really about fostering an environment where science is encouraged, nurtured, respected, rewarded and protected,” Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

With its so-called Scientific Integrity Policy, NOAA becomes the first federal agency to implement a directive laid out by President Barack Obama shortly after he took office.

“The point is to make sure science is not undermined or misused, and to base decisions about policy or management on good science,” Lubchenco, who also serves as the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, told reporters.

A new aspect of the policy states that NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about their work without having to request permission from public affairs officers at the agency, Lubchenco said.

“That was not true during Deepwater Horizon,” said Lubchenco, referring to the April 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “That’s one of the more obvious changes.”

In addition, NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints that extend beyond their scientific findings, but they must make it clear they are presenting their own opinions.

Other aspects of the policy stipulate that NOAA policy-makers and managers may not “alter, suppress or distort findings,” and that there will be routine use of peer-review to assess research, Lubchenco said

Political appointees at U.S. government agencies have in the past been criticized for suppressing science or prohibiting scientists from speaking publicly about climate change and other politically sensitive topics.

The policy also protects whistleblowers and clarifies that NOAA scientists are expected to actively participate in professional scientific societies and meetings.

NASA, the other federal agency involved with climate research, is still working to finalize its scientific integrity policy, said NASA spokeswoman Sarah Dewitt, adding that NASA’s existing policy does not require employees to obtain permission prior to speaking to the media or the public.

NOAA’s new policy comes as the agency is being increasingly pushed to provide data to monitor, predict and understand climate change and extreme weather events.

Already this year, the United States has set a new record for extreme weather events, Lubchenco said.

So far, there have been 12 tornadoes, floods, droughts, wildfires, blizzards and a hurricane that have each done more than $1 billion in damage and have killed more than 1,000 people combined, Lubchenco said.

The previous record was nine extreme weather events in 2008.

With a budget of about $5 billion for the fiscal year that began on October 1, NOAA employs about 13,000 people, more than half of whom are scientists.

Editing by Kevin Gray and Todd Eastham