NASA in the Political Minefield

March 30th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

NASA, which has come under fire recently for its management of scientist’s access to the media, has run more issues involving politics. According to the Houston Chronicle today,

Five days after NASA administrator Michael Griffin urged a Houston audience to keep U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay in office, a spokesman denied Wednesday that Griffin had made a formal campaign endorsement.

“The space program has had no better friend in its entire existence than Tom DeLay,” Griffin said Friday of DeLay’s legislative support of the agency. “He’s still with us and we need to keep him there.”

With DeLay present, Griffin spoke at the annual Space Center Rotary Club of Houston’s nonprofit National Award for Space Achievement Foundation gala.

Griffin had no intention of soliciting votes for the 11-term lawmaker, NASA spokesman Dean Acosta said.

“He did not make an endorsement and will not get involved in any political campaigns,” Acosta said. “If his words of thanks to Tom DeLay were misconstrued as an endorsement, then he regrets that.”

Why does this matter? Well, the law for one reason,

The black-tie awards dinner at which Griffin made his remarks was held after regular working hours, but Griffin was representing the space agency and giving an award to a NASA employee, astronaut Eileen Collins.

Griffin’s travel to Houston from Washington, D.C., for the dinner was paid by NASA rather than the Rotary Club, said event organizer Floyd Bennett of the United Space Alliance.

The independent Office of Special Counsel, which administers the Hatch Act, will investigate the matter, spokesman Loren Smith said.

Employees who violate the Hatch Act can be removed from office, according to the Office of Special Counsel, or suspended without pay.

Determining whether Griffin was acting in an official or after-hours capacity “really is a close call,” said Corey Ditslear, a political scientist at the University of North Texas.

According to one political scientist, this is a tempest in a teapot:

But any misstep by Griffin was relatively minor, said Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

“Even in this context, I am not going to get too uptight about it,” Hess said. “When (officials such as Griffin) make statements that can be interpreted as political statements, the government should not be underwriting it. You just caught the fellow with a little egg on his vest, looking untidy.”

Just goes to show that in highly politicized contexts, minefields abound.

10 Responses to “NASA in the Political Minefield”

  1. Paul Says:

    In prior post, Roger wrote, “I am sorry to report that your views of this community bear little correlation with reality, starting with my own views.”

    Roger’s denial continues, “I have yet to identify anyone who claims to have been censored by NOAA leadership, though I’d be interested in hearing from them. If you (or Jerry Mahlman) would like to name names, I’m all ears.”

    See story in Providence Journal here:

    NOAA accused of hiding truth about global warming

    The Providence Journal


    Knutson seems to be out, while Landsea seems to be NOAA’s superstar scientist for the moment. Gee, I wonder why?

    Obviously, this is the case of yet ANOTHER journalist not getting it “wrong”, Roger. I would suggest you send a letter to the editor.

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  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    I just spent the week with Knutson and Landsea. The article is not right or wrong, it is one reporter’s experience. Your reference to it is good fodder for consipracy theorists, but doesn’t really address the issue. You are a reporter, no? Why don’t you do some real reporting on this issue? I’m not really sure what it is that you disagree with, since you haven’t really presented an argument or claims.

    I am satisfied from what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears that the arguments that I present here are accurate. But beware — they could be wrong, and I’ll change my views when that is the case. But it is unlikely that second-hand innuendo from weblog commenters is going to make that threshold. Sorry. Do some reporting and maybe that’d be different.


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  5. Paul Says:

    Great. Pointing to a news story that appeared in a newspaper is now “second-hand innuendo from weblog commenters.”


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  7. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Paul- You are using the news story to allege continuing censorship among NOAA scientists by NOAA leadership, when the story does not say that. That is “second-hand innuendo.”

    The story refers to experiences a “few months ago” when NOAA admitted that they had some problems, as did NASA. Those issues became public, and the head of NOAA apologized and said he’d make changes. Since then I have not heard similar allegations.

    If you know different, then simply provide the evidence. Allegation absent evidence is innuendo. I do wonder why you continue to point to old news to make claims about the present.

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  9. Paul Says:

    Got it. So Landsea WAS the favored son of NOAA, but the agency is NOW more open.

    Your original comment, “I have yet to identify anyone who claims to HAVE BEEN censored by NOAA leadership….” [emphasis mine]

    My reporting here is done. Back to work.

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  11. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Paul- Glad to have that cleared up. Of course, this is now the third time that you have mistakenly accused me of some sinister intent because you are working with partial or incomplete information. As I said before, and I will repeat again, if in the future ybefore making accusations you’d like to simply ask me to clarify a position that you don’t fully understand, I am easily reachable and happy to respond. That in my view is good reporting. Thanks.

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  13. Eli Rabett Says:

    Let us see, just to make sure, a few months ago is what? mid-February at the latest? This, of course, is April 1. NOAA leadership is what? Only Adm. Lautenbacher, or does that include those operating under his announced policy from June? which includes:

    01 The following shall be referred to the servicing PAO:

    c. official and non-official scientific and technical papers authored or co-authored by NOAA employees that may result in media interest.

    .02 NOAA employees must notify the servicing PAO or OPCIA before responding to news media inquiries whenever the inquiries:

    a. are of national news interest;

    b. concern regulatory actions or issues;

    c. concern controversial issues;

    d. pertain to science or research having known or potential policy implications;

    e. involve the release of scientific or technical papers that may have policy implications or are controversial; or

    f. involve a crisis or a potential crisis situation.

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  15. Rabett Says:

    Oh yeah, while Griffin was technically in violation, I don’t think it is very serious. Lots of NASA folk have praised Barbara Milkowski for example. Proximity to centers attract political support.

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  17. Paul Says:


    Be careful. You’re gonna’ send Roger into a “comment guidelines” frenzy.

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  19. Rabett Says:

    Paul, when I was a kid I used to play let’s you and him fight. I don’t much do it anymore.