NASA’s top officials rolled out a new public affairs policy Thursday designed to ensure open communications between its employees, scientists and the public.
NASA chief Michael Griffin and deputy administrator Shana Dale discussed the new communications policy, which the agency drew up following allegations that a political appointee stifled a top climatologist known for speaking out on global warming, during a televised agency-wide update.
“The goal was to clarify our commitment to scientific and technical openness,” Dale said during the discussion, which was broadcast to NASA centers via NASA TV.
The space agency’s review of its public affairs policies, which Dale said had not been updated since 1991, came after a New York Times report that former NASA press aide George Deutsch — a 24-year-old political appointee — played a role in muzzling climatologist James Hansen, who heads the Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York City.
Deutsch has since resigned, and claimed he was targeted because of his political ties as a Bush administration appointee.
“The circumstance with Mr. Deutsch was most unfortunate,” Griffin said. “We certainly hope it won’t be repeated.”
Griffin said that the new eight-page policy is aimed not only at clarifying the roles and responsibilities of those NASA scientists and engineers that produce technical information, but also lays out how information is to be handled by public affairs officials, as well as an appeals process to resolve concerns.
“It is important for our employees within NASA to understand that they can appeal a decision by their management,” Griffin said. “There is a path for everyone to appeal a decision that he or she believes is wrong, and there will be no retribution for appealing.”
Griffin said that NASA employees are free to grant interviews without a member of the agency’s public affairs office (PAO) staff present, but stressed the importance of coordination between the two because of the risk of being misquoted or blind-sided by reporters.
“It’s not an absolute requirement,” Griffin said of accompanied interviews. “I would just do what you want, but my advice is that stepping into an interview without a member of the media present is courting trouble.”
According to the new policy, scientists are free to communicate their scientific conclusions of their research to the media, but any personal opinions or views beyond that must be specifically labeled as such.
Griffin also stressed that the space agency is a technical body that presents facts and not policy — which is what to do with a set of facts — so employees should be clear to explain which statements are personal opinions.
“We’re not going to hang people,” Griffin said about the expression of personal opinions. “But we’d like people to realize the difference between what are the facts, and what are opinions.”