Threats could have chilling effect on climate research, science group says

Personal attacks — including legal challenges and even death threats — on climate scientists have created a “hostile environment” that could result in a “chilling effect” on much-needed research, one of the country’s leading scientific organizations said this week.

The board of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a rare statement Tuesday underscoring that it “vigorously opposes” personal attacks on climate scientists. It's the organization's strongest rebuke of efforts by conservative groups to criticize climate scientists.

“Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public,” the statement says. “This both impedes the progress of science and interferes with the application of science to the solution of global problems.”

The statement comes a week after a conservative group sued NASA for records related to the outside advocacy and compensation of James Hansen, a prominent advocate for reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The same group, the American Tradition Institute, has also sought documents from the University of Virginia related to Michael Mann, another prominent climate scientist.

“The sharing of research data is vastly different from unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists,” said AAAS, which bills itself as the world's largest scientific society. “The latter serve only as a distraction and make no constructive contribution to the public discourse.”

More broadly, the AAAS statement comes at a time when Republicans and some Democrats in Congress are working to block Environmental Protection Agency climate regulations, with some lawmakers raising questions about validity of climate science.

AAAS, which publishes the journal Science, warns that personal attacks on climate scientists could have a “chilling effect” on scientific research.

“[W]e are concerned that establishing a practice of aggressive inquiry into the professional histories of scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions,” the statement says.

It’s the second time the AAAS board has weighed in on personal attacks on climate scientists, according to the organization’s spokesman. The board issued a statement in May 2010 criticizing Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s investigation into Mann’s climate research. Tuesday’s statement was written in much stronger language.