Brave Climate Change Scientists Choose Hope Over Politics

This article is the result of interviews conducted by the author with Drs. Ziska and Caffrey in August of 2019. Full disclosure: Dr. Caffrey was willing to be interviewed due to the author’s previous employment with the National Park Service. The author’s spouse works for the US Department of Agriculture. 

Dr. Lew Ziska, former Senior Researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory. Submitted photo.
Dr. Lew Ziska, former Senior Researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory. Submitted photo.

Dr. Lew Ziska was a Senior Researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory. In 2018, Ziska had completed research on the effects of climate change on the nutritional value of rice. The agency had processed his paper as it had a hundred times before. Peer review was complete and a scientific journal had scheduled its publication. Suddenly, a USDA non-biological researcher gave nonsensical review comments to Ziska, instructing him to address them before the agency would allow publication. That had never happened before.  “It was as if I were in a cartoon and a lightbulb went off. I realized this was ideological, not scientific.” The article was not published.

Dr. Maria Caffrey, former Principle Investigator with the Department of the Interior (DOI).
Dr. Maria Caffrey, former Principle Investigator with the Department of the Interior (DOI).

Dr. Maria Caffrey was the Principal Investigator on a five-year project to examine how sea level rise and storm surge would impact coastal national  parks for planning purposes.  The sea level predictions were based on data published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Caffrey’s work was complete, but publication had been delayed. She was unconcerned until she went on maternity leave and was notified that her bosses were editing her report. They wanted to remove mention of humans as a source of climate change, rendering her report useless. A reporter, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained copies of emails showing her bosses had intervened and were afraid of reprisals from political appointees in the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the National Park Service.  Dr. Caffrey filed a whistleblower complaint about the suppression of her report. Though her report was eventually published, her funding was not renewed.

These are only two examples of suppression of climate change research under the current administration in direct violation of government Principles of Scientific Integrity. Both the USDA and DOI have policies governing scientific integrity including those protections from harassment and political meddling.

Both scientists are published researchers who are dedicated to helping solve some of the looming issues related to climate change, but both say under the current administration their work has been suppressed and both took action. They are not alone. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF), which counsels scientists regarding their rights, wrote in February 2018, “Barely a year into President Trump’s term, there have already been 111 attempts by the federal government to censor, misrepresent, or stifle science.”

Two Responses, Two Outcomes 

Ziska and Caffrey both felt maintaining personal and agency scientific integrity required leaving the agencies they gladly served. Each took their own path.  Dr. Ziska was offered a position at Columbia University in New York and retired from his government position. Dr. Caffrey, a new mother who had just bought a new home with her husband, was shuffled to other offices and even was asked to continue to work on projects as a volunteer. She eventually became unemployed and her whistleblower case with the National Park Service remains unresolved.

While some might suggest that scientists should forgo the pursuit of climate change research under the thumb of the current administration, that is not the message from these two scientists. They feel it is even more important for new and current scientists to continue to guide government work and they have some inspiring recommendations to share.

Read about their recommendations and more about these scientists in the second installment of this article coming up in the Dec/Jan issue of EcoNews.