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Friday, June 1, 2012

Galveston Bay and sea level rise: Standing up for scientific integrity

Galveston Bay

An overview of factual findings, its natural resources, and the way people use them

The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) did not expect to be embroiled in an internationally reported controversy over scientific censorship when it entered into a contract with state officials to edit and produce the State of the Bay report. That document presents a comprehensive overview of the best, most recent scientific findings on Galveston Bay, its natural resources and the way people use them.

It was just such a controversy that developed last fall, however, when John Anderson, an oceanography professor at Rice University whom HARC had chosen to write a chapter on physical form and processes that shape the bay, complained to the Houston Chronicle that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which commissioned the report, wanted references to the subject of sea level rise removed.

By the time the dispute was resolved late last year, resulting in the report’s publication with discussion of sea level rise, HARC had won praise for “standing up to scientific censorship,” HARC president Jim Lester said.

"The bottom line is that HARC was forced into this controversy because we stood up for scientific integrity and the demands of the contract,” Lester said.

"We were asked to change the product and violate our scientific integrity. We had agreed to a contract to let us operate as a neutral, independent researcher and synthesizer (of others' research).

Then we were asked to do something different – omit crucial information. We fought to leave it in."

The disclosure to the Chronicle by Anderson, a leading expert on sea level rise and other processes affecting the Texas coast, came against a political backdrop that undoubtedly enhanced its attractiveness to reporters.

Scientists widely expect manmade global warming will cause sea levels to rise in the coming century. When the Chronicle broke the news of Anderson’s complaint, Gov. Rick Perry was running for president with strongly skeptical statements about climate science. State officials were legally challenging the validity of research, widely accepted in the scientific community, that underpins the federal government’s regulation of climate-warming greenhouse gases. (HARC, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, does not adopt positions on political or policy issues.)

Anderson’s revelation to the Chronicle came when private discussions between HARC and the TCEQ about the fate of his chapter were at an apparent impasse.

With the matter suddenly (and, to HARC, surprisingly) public, Anderson and the three HARC staff members involved with the project declared they would not permit their names to be on the document if Anderson’s chapter were removed or published with scientific findings omitted without his approval. The HARC staffers were report editors Lester (who became HARC president in February), Lisa Gonzalez (named vice president at that time) and co-author Pris Weeks.

“We were concerned that the chapter just wasn’t going to be in there at all, and to us, that was unacceptable,” Gonzalez said.

“From the beginning, we knew it (discussion of sea level rise) was going to be sensitive, but we said this is a physical process that’s affecting the upper Texas coast and Galveston Bay and something we’ve got to talk about.”

In its original form, Anderson’s chapter cited findings published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to place the situation involving sea level rise along the Texas coast in a global context. That context was what the TCEQ wanted removed, Gonzalez said.

(The IPCC, established by the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization, is an international body with participation by hundreds of scientists from many countries.)

Eventually, the TCEQ invited HARC to reopen discussions on the issue. HARC and Anderson agreed to a compromise with the state agency – sea level data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gauge at Pier 21 in Galveston were included, but not global data from an IPCC document – and the State of the Bay report was published with all the editors’ and authors’ names in place.

Ironically, the data from Pier 21 (a federal monitoring site where data have been collected for more than a century*) demonstrate a greater local trend in sea level rise in Galveston Bay than the IPCC numbers documented elsewhere.