SEJ Comments On NOAA Science Policy; Seeks More Openness

August 24, 2011

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to ensure that its scientists can talk freely to reporters about their work — without approval or chaperones from the public affairs office.

SEJ commented formally on NOAA's June 15, 2011, draft scientific integrity policy in an Aug. 19 letter from SEJ President Carolyn Whetzel and Freedom of Information Task Force Chairman Ken Ward Jr. NOAA had invited public comment on its draft policy.

NOAA's policy goes somewhat further than other agencies' policies in setting a goal of open information. SEJ commended the part of NOAA's draft policy that states:

"NOAA scientists may freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work, including scientific and technical ideas, approaches, findings, and conclusions based on their official work."

But SEJ noted that NOAA largely thwarts open communication between scientists and reporters with additional guidance policy. SEJ wrote:

"That guidance document itself is problematic. Section 8, 'Official Communication with the News Media,' requires advance approval by the public affairs office whenever NOAA staff scientists give interviews or otherwise make statements about their work. The policy further generally requires public affairs officials to sit in on all interviews unless other arrangements are approved by the public affairs staff."

"These sorts of limitations on scientists' communications with the news media (and through the media, the public) are simply unacceptable in a free society," SEJ wrote.

SEJ also noted that the draft NOAA policy contained no provisions for enforcement.