Just weeks after the public release of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) draft scientific integrity policy, the NOAA National Sea Grant program is being criticized for its decade old guidebook for extension agents. Critics claim that the booklet gags scientists from speaking about their personal views or from engaging in public debate.
The guidebook, which was published in 2000, provides information and advice for extension professionals who work with researchers, fishermen, coastal planners, educators, the public, and others to impart information about marine resources. At issue is a section that advises Sea Grant extension agents to approach their work in a neutral manner: “…as neutral providers of science-based information to decision makers, we do not suggest what those decisions should be. We help them understand their choices and the implications of those choices. We do not take positions on issues of public debate.”
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an advocacy group, has urged NOAA to change the publication to be more consistent with the agency’s draft policy on scientific integrity. The draft policy encourages NOAA scientists to speak to the media about their research. “It makes no sense that NOAA agency scientists would be free to speak out but academic scientists who receive NOAA Sea Grants are not,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director.
NOAA views the situation differently. “Sea Grant’s role is not as an advocate, but instead, as a neutral vehicle for educating the public, resource managers and other stakeholders so they can make their own informed decisions,” said Jana Goldman, a spokeswoman for NOAA. “Extension agents are expected to provide information on all sides of controversial issues, but without advocating a particular position or approach. There is an important role for advocacy on all sides on issues of public debate, but these roles are not appropriate for a Sea Grant extension agent.”
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