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Got Science? Scientists in Nebraska Say 'No' to Political Interference

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Al Dutcher, Nebraska's state climatologist, is an expert on climate change and a professor at the University of Nebraska. He's also a self-described conservative who is outraged that the state legislature and Nebraska's Republican governor are letting politics interfere with questions of science.

As Dutcher puts it, "After 25 years in my field, I've gotten to a point where I'm not afraid of the politics on this anymore. I say enough's enough. Let's stick to the science and let the political chips fall where they may."

A Compromised Study
Dutcher and his fellow climate scientists in Nebraska are standing up for science after the state legislature passed a misguided bill that commissions a climate change impacts study for the state but precludes the scientists writing it from addressing the role of human activity in causing global warming. The scientists say the bill's language compromises the study by design and that no credible scientist will agree to such terms.

Don Wilhite, former director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explains the issue simply: "To be of any use," he says, "a climate impact report has to look at the whole picture. The issue is one of science, not politics. In Nebraska, just as everywhere, we need the best information we can get about the changes we face."

No Help From the Governor
But some politicians in Nebraska clearly see the issue differently. State Sen. Beau McCoy, a Republican and candidate for governor in Nebraska, inserted the contested language into the bill during floor debate in the legislature, directing scientists to focus only on so-called "cyclical" climate change -- a term that has no legitimate scientific meaning. During the debate, McCoy reportedly said that the only climate study he would support was one that looked at "normal, cyclical change," adding: "I don't subscribe to global warming."

The bill's original sponsor, state Sen. Ken Haar, a Democrat, told reporters after the bill's passage that any analysis that rejected science and excluded the role of humans would make the state "look stupid." As Dutcher quips, "The way it currently stands, the legislation is basically meaningless unless they are looking for a report that explains the existence of the seasons."

The legislation in question directs a committee in the Governor's office to commission the climate study. Nebraska Governor Don Heineman, himself a Republican who has expressed skepticism about climate change, is unwilling to act on behalf of his state climatologist and the other climate scientists speaking out about the bill. Asked whether he would support them by calling for a more complete study on behalf of his state's citizens, the governor, through his spokesperson, Sue Roush, said only: "This decision was made by the legislature."

"Blatant Realities"
The current situation is particularly unfortunate, Dutcher says, because the citizens of Nebraska need information about their changing climate, especially the prospect of increased drought in the state. He says increasing temperatures in Nebraska's summer months are decreasing soil moisture, leading to increased irrigation demands that threaten to strain water resources in the region.

As Dutcher explains, "Here in Nebraska, we're very focused on issues of farming. And there's no question that humans are altering the climate. All our farmers recognize the changes -- they're planting longer seasons and more varieties, they're planting earlier, there's changing in the mean freeze date and an extended growing season. These are blatant realities."

"The way I see it," Dutcher says, "scientists like me who are employed by state universities have a job to do to give taxpayers the best information we can as a return on their investment in us. Good scientists know that this is not a political issue and we cannot be hamstrung by politics on either side of this issue. Regardless of your political views," Dutcher says, "we still have to figure out what we need to do to adequately prepare. That's why we need the best information science can provide."

Real Science, Real Answers
To get through the present political logjam, Wilhite and some other Nebraska climate scientists are working to broker a compromise in which the University of Nebraska agrees to underwrite a full climate impacts study for the state. But it remains unclear how the issue will be resolved. In the meantime, Dutcher and other climatologists in the state are standing strong and receiving praise from their colleagues for doing so.

One scientist applauding their stance is Gretchen Goldman, an atmospheric scientist and analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who monitors issues of political interference in science. "It is great to see these climatologists stand up against the intrusion of politics into their scientific field," Goldman says. "The fact that they are speaking out for their scientific principles in the face of such political pressure is brave and laudable. Their fellow scientists certainly stand with them."

For his part, Dutcher says the issue is clearcut. "We're scientists. Our job is to look at the data try to find the best results possible -- and to use that data to try to make models and predictions about what we can expect in the future," he says. "You can't bring politics into questions of science, no matter what."

Seth Shulman, Senior Staff Writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a veteran science journalist and author of six books whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. You can sign up to receive his monthly Got Science? column via email at the Union of Concerned Scientists website: www.ucsusa.org.