Public Employees Petition NOAA to Amend Sea Grant Guidelines, Protect Faculty Speech

By on December 18, 2009

In October, FIRE reported on a controversy at the University of Alaska, where Professor Richard Steiner was removed from a $10,000 research grant administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Steiner filed a grievance against UA, charging that the university had removed him from the grant at NOAA’s urging, in retaliation for criticisms he had made about the oil industry. UA rejected Steiner’s allegations.

As Will wrote here:

From FIRE’s perspective, Steiner’s case is troubling and complex. Troubling, because it seems uncontested by either the NOAA or UA that the funding was removed from Steiner as a result of his speech on matters of public concern. That’s obviously cause for great concern, particularly in a situation such as this one, where a speaker like Steiner is an expert in his field and thus uniquely equipped to inform the public debate. In funding scientific research, it seems troubling that the government also asks that researchers not speak publicly about the conclusions suggested by their work when such conclusions impact the public.

Steiner’s complex case raises uncomfortable questions about the rights of academic faculty carrying out federally funded research, and many—including FIRE—question the propriety of NOAA’s requirement that those on its grants "not take positions on issues of public debate," and whether such a requirement acts against its own interests. 

The non-profit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has been advocating on Steiner’s behalf, has been a vocal critic of NOAA throughout this episode, and, as announced yesterday, has now petitioned NOAA to clarify its guidelines for those accepting its research grants so that First Amendment rights and academic freedom are protected. Aside from being morally right, PEER says in the twenty-page petition that doing so benefits the scientific community.

[U]niversities are in urgent need of professors who are willing to take a stand on controversial issues, and to challenge conventional orthodoxies, thereby widening the scope of discussion and increasing the total mix of information leading to a final decision. Our colleges and universities have a long tradition of academic freedom that must remain protected, and the Sea Grant program was not meant to undermine that tradition by restricting academic scientists from taking positions on issues of public importance in order to receive NOAA funding. Thus, in order to fully realize the objectives of the National Sea Grant Program, the Sea Grant guidelines must be changed so that grant-funded scientists can publish and speak to others about their research and perspectives without fear of retribution.

Kudos to PEER for continuing to raise public awareness of this issue (Anchorage NBC affiliate KTTU has already noticed). FIRE will be among the many awaiting NOAA’s response. In the meantime, read PEER’s whole petition here.

Schools: University of Alaska Anchorage