Home > Uncategorized > NOAA Keeps Gag Rule On University Marine Scientists – Rejects Petition to Lift Ban Against “Advocacy” by Sea Grant Recipients

NOAA Keeps Gag Rule On University Marine Scientists – Rejects Petition to Lift Ban Against “Advocacy” by Sea Grant Recipients

The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; …  By the public use of one’s own reason I understand the use that anyone as a scholar makes of reason before the entire literate world.  ~~~  What is Enlightenment? (Kant – 1784)

We all know that issues related to the management of NJ’s precious coastal and ocean ecosystems are often highly controversial and scientifically complex.

That’s why we particularly need scientists who are willing to become involved in the public policy debates to ground the discussion in science. By doing so, they can serve as a countervailing force to the “expert” hired guns of special interests, expose the corruption and deceit of anti-rational science deniers, and hold government accountable.

By publicly talking about how their research applies to public policy issues, scientists can become public intellectuals and key advocates of the public interest as arrived at through public discourse (see Scholar as Citizen, a blog of University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon for a perfect example of how this works).

Unfortunately, despite lofty American principles like “academic freedom” and “free speech” and “scientific integrity“, scientists run the risk of retaliation and loss of funding if they become involved and speak out.

NOAA policy mandates that scientists must avoid advocacy “at all costs” or risk being stripped of NOAA Sea Grant funding.

See below for a distressing example of this – the remarkable story of marine scientist and Professor Rick Steiner.

NJ scientists and professors are directly at risk.

NOAA funds the NJ Sea Grant Consortium, which is comprised of 20 member NJ colleges and Universities, including Monmouth, Rutgers, NJIT and Stevens.  Their mission is:

New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium Member Institutions are colleges, universities and other groups with expertise in marine, coastal and/or estuarine science and an interest in New Jersey’s marine, coastal and/or estuarine affairs. Collectively the group works to advance knowledge and wise-utilization of New Jersey’s marine and coastal resources and make a positive impact on marine and coastal policy throughout the region. The Consortium also coordinates and seeks funding opportunities for cooperative research, education and extension projects among its members.

NJ Sea Consortium member institutions and scientists should speak out against this NOAA policy, which compromises their academic freedoms and free speech rights. ENGO’s should join that effort because we lose when science is muzzled or sidelined. And the media should oppose this as well, as they lose the best sources for stories.

News Releases

For Immediate Release: June 29, 2011
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

NOAA KEEPS GAG RULE ON UNIVERSITY MARINE SCIENTISTS – Rejects Petition to Lift Ban against “Advocacy” by Sea Grant Recipients

Washington, DC – The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will continue to forbid scientists who receive its marine research grants from speaking out on matters of public concern even as private citizens, according to its denial of a rule-making petition filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, academics must avoid advocacy “at all costs” or risk being stripped of NOAA Sea Grant funding, under official guidance that remains in effect.

The PEER petition was sparked by a case in which the University of Alaska withdrew federal Sea Grant funding from a prominent marine scientist under pressure from NOAA officials who complained about his “advocacy” for marine conservation. The marine scientist, Professor Rick Steiner, came under attack by NOAA officials for speaking at a press conference protesting a pro-oil industry slant in a Sea Grant conference on proposed petroleum development in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

PEER filed a rulemaking petition with NOAA on December 17, 2009 shortly after Prof. Steiner’s Sea Grant funding was stripped. In a decision dated June 1, 2011 (but actually delivered more than three weeks later), NOAA declined to clarify its policy, contending the guidelines were “not a binding legal requirement” even though NOAA sought to have the restriction enforced in the Steiner case.

Curiously, earlier this month NOAA circulated a draft Scientific Integrity Policy affirming the ability of its employees to express “personal” viewpoints in their fields but 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”.

“Rather than taking this opportunity to clarify its support for academic freedom, NOAA has chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a legalism,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that it took NOAA over 18 months to issue a curt denial of the PEER petition, a delay which officials ascribed to the need to coordinate with its emerging Scientific Integrity Policy. “It makes no sense that NOAA agency scientists would be free to speak out but academic scientists who receive NOAA Sea Grants are not.”

Nonetheless, NOAA officials have consistently defended their position that academic grantees should not take “positions on issues of public debate”. In the Steiner case, a top Sea Grant official approached Prof. Steiner’s dean indicating that NOAA had an issue with Rick Steiner because “he was acting as an advocate” adding that “one agent can cause problems nationally” and urging that Prof. Steiner “not be paid with Sea Grant funds.”

“If the U.S. 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,” said Steiner, who resigned his professorship over the flap. “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.”


See the PEER Sea Grant petition

View the Sea Grant ban on advocacy  

Read the NOAA rejection

Look at NOAA draft Scientific Integrity Policy

Examine pending PEER petition to repeal Commerce-wide speech restrictions

Scan Alaska Legislature citation for Richard Steiner

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