One of the benefits of writing newspaper articles is that sometimes, instead of sending anonymous insults, readers call you up and tell you interesting things. Two weeks ago, after news broke that a NASA press officer had resigned amid revelations that he’d tried to muffle the agency’s top climate scientist, I got several such calls. All were from people with similar tales of government-funded scientists intimidated by heavy-handed public relations departments. Curiosity piqued, I followed one up, at least as far as the nervous scientists and the equally nervous government press officers would let me. Here’s what I learned.
The story begins with the publication of an article — “Potential Environmental Impact of a Hydrogen Economy on the Stratosphere” — in the June 2003 issue of the journal Science, which is not exactly beach reading. Yet although crammed with graphs, equations and references to chlorofluorocarbons, the basic premise isn’t hard to explain: The five authors, all affiliated at the time with the prestigious California Institute of Technology, wanted to explore the potential long-term impact of hydrogen fuel cells on the Earth’s atmosphere.
For those who’ve forgotten, hydrogen fuel cells were, three State of the Unions ago, the thing that was going to save Americans from their oil addiction and stop the auto emissions that help cause global warming. Nowadays switch grass and biomass are the hot alternative fuels, but back in 2003, the president won applause for proposing “$1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.” On Capitol Hill, there were demonstrations of one such “Freedom Car,” and the president called on scientists to be “bold and innovative” in their hydrogen research.
Unfortunately for the authors of “Potential Environmental Impact of a Hydrogen Economy on the Stratosphere,” their research, while bold and innovative, didn’t exactly mesh with the hype. According to their model, tiny leaks from hydrogen cells, if such cells are ever mass-produced, could cause serious environmental damage. But they made no suggestion of inevitability: One of the study’s authors, John Eiler of Caltech, pointed out that foreknowledge of potential environmental problems could “help guide investments in technologies to favor designs that minimize leakage.” Presumably thinking along the same lines, NASA, which had helped pay for the research, prepared a news release and news conference on the paper.
Abruptly, both were canceled. Although “we often hear that releases are held up for political reasons,” one NASA employee told me, “that one was a surprise: It went all the way to the top and then got killed.” In fact, the release and the conference were “killed” by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. An official there told me this was because the office wanted to give Energy Department scientists a chance to respond to the study before it was publicized: “Our role is to facilitate interagency cooperation.” Coincidentally or not, it also happens that Spencer Abraham, then the energy secretary, was that same week preparing to depart for Brussels, where he was to tell Europeans that U.S. hydrogen research proved the Bush administration cared about the environment.
All of that part of the story is confirmed. The rest — the story of how none of the scientists ever got government grants for further research on this subject — is complicated by rumor and hearsay. Eiler, seeing that the Energy Department was looking for proposals to study the environmental impact of hydrogen, applied for a grant to do so. He was turned down on the grounds that he thought were “peculiar” — that the department was not, in fact, interested in proposals on the subject. Today he gets his only money for related research from the private sector. The National Science Foundation officially rejected another researcher’s grant application — and then unofficially told him that some in the foundation thought the timing of the Science magazine paper had been deliberately designed to embarrass the energy secretary. One of the authors has now changed his research focus, he e-mailed me, to something that “has less politics.” Others refused to talk about the paper at all.
None of this means that there really was any government interference in the funding. Another eminent scientist who does related research, Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, told me that while he considered the Science paper “groundbreaking” and “pioneering,” because it was “the first to actually go after this issue,” he disagreed with the conclusions and methodology, and said that perhaps grant reviewers did too. The science and technology policy office says it is “preposterous” to think that the White House was involved in funding issues. Abraham remembers the trip to Europe but (very plausibly) doesn’t recall anything about this contrarian paper at all.
I’m thus left with nothing to report — except that a fuss over a press release and a rumor about who said what to whom at the National Science Foundation left some scientists feeling, rightly or wrongly, that they’d better stay away from “political” subjects if they want government grants. And, three years down the road, they have.