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Our best scientists should not be censored

“Good science cannot long persist in an atmosphere of intimidation.”

These words were written in a letter from Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R–NY) to NASA administrator Michael Griffin, and should serve as a strict warning. Boehlert, the chairman of the House Science Committee, sent the letter to the aerospace administration’s head last week, criticizing the agency for attempting to censor its top climatologist, James Hansen.

Hansen, who has a long history of speaking out about global warming, gave a lecture last month about the growing importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly after the lecture, NASA administrators ordered all his future lectures and publications to be “reviewed” before going public. The implication, of course, is that NASA doesn’t want him speaking his mind on environmental issues again.

It’s no secret that the Bush administration is knee-deep in contracts with Big Energy. Whether it’s conspiring with oil or coal companies, the Bush administration will do anything to make life better for some of this country’s (and this planet’s) biggest polluters. This situation is worrisome because it presents a chilling conflict of scientific interest. Where does the allegiance of organizations like NASA reside — with the legitimate pursuit of scientific research and advancement, or with a check-signing government that might not always want the stone-cold truth made public? Adding anti-pollution measures like smokestack scrubbers would cost the industry billions — billions they won’t have to spend if no one calls them out on it.

But how can NASA get away with censoring its own employees? Dean Acosta, a highly placed press secretary at NASA, denied that anything fishy transpired. Instead, he simply claimed that the crackdown on Hansen was because he bypassed standard agency guidelines for making public statements. Acosta said that these guidelines require all statements and research papers to be reviewed before they are publicly announced.

The Bush administration is making NASA nothing but a mouthpiece, putting out only the information that furthers its particular goals and interests. For a nation that was once on the forefront of science, engineering, and technology, America has recently edged its way towards becoming an international laughingstock. We refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, a massive global accord to reduce industrial emissions and hopefully reduce, or at least slow down, the greenhouse effect. While Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda are churning out immensely popular and environmentally friendly hybrid gasoline-electric cars, the best selling vehicles put out by the big three American manufacturers are still gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Michael Crichton hit the nail on the head in his latest novel, State of Fear: “[It is] the requirement of every sovereign state to exert control over the behavior of its citizens, to keep them orderly and reasonably docile. To keep them driving on the right side of the road — or the left, as the case may be. To keep them paying taxes. And of course we know that social control is best managed through fear.”

Our government, at this very moment, is attempting to silence its dissidents. No one is being carted off to waste his days in the desolate plains of Siberia, and no one is being kidnapped surreptitiously in the night; even so, this sort of control of who can say what and to whom is yet another symptom of the vast information control syndicate that is slowly falling into place.