By Jolie Breeden

Thanks to the polarization of scientific issues such as climate change, it’s become popular to implore scientists to join the public conversation and no wonder. Perhaps now more than ever, we need clear and expert guidance to help us understand complicated data and sift fact from opinion.

But while having more scientists advising science policy seems like an obvious advantage, the reality has been quite different. From the past travails of Michael Mann to recent inquiries into Roger Pielke, Jr. to the investigation of numerous National Science Foundation researchers, it’s clear that simply being a scientist can make one a political target—never mind being a scientist who speaks his mind.

The most recent example of this contradictory dynamic is climate expert Jagadish Shukla, who dared to join 19 other scientists in writing a letter suggesting that the Obama administration should investigate corporations that deliberately spread misinformation about climate change.

Within a month, the George Mason University professor and president of the Institute of Global Environment and Society learned his organization was the subject of a congressional investigation by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

“I signed this letter as a private citizen on personal time, urging action on climate change, and I have been shocked by the reaction,” Shukla told InsideClimate News. “Any allegations of inappropriate behavior are untrue.”

Shukla had been the first signatory on the September 1 letter, which recommended using RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) to hold corporations responsible if they could be found to have “knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” *

Shukla’s mistake seems to be briefly posting the letter on the IGES website. Because IGES is the recipient of grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NSF, and NASA, the committee insinuated that federal funds were being used to promote biased political opinions.

“The letter raises serious concerns because IGES appears to be almost fully funded by taxpayer money while simultaneously participating in partisan political activity by requesting a RICO investigation of companies and organizations that disagree with the Obama Administration on climate change,” states an October 1 letter to Shukla from committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R).

The fact that the letter was removed from the website (replaced with a notice that it had been “inadvertently” included there) shortly after posting with was also an issue, according to Smith.

“IGES’s recent decision to remove documents from its website raises concerns that additional information vital to the Committee’s investigation may not be preserved,” his letter stated.

Since IGES completed its three-year grant cycle in July and is in the process of dissolving, the committee’s action might end in nothing more than an exercise in onerous paperwork. What’s more impactful, though, is the chilling effect the investigation is likely to have on scientists advocating for policy action.

“The House Science Committee isn’t going after Dr. Shukla and his colleagues for their scientific work, but for their opinions as private citizens,” Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists told InsideClimate. “Scientists have the same right as anyone to engage in the political process and express their beliefs without fear of being hauled before Congress for their views.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, expressed a similar opinion.

“To be clear about my own position, I would resist any attempt to stifle the constitutionally protected right of any citizen, including the nation’s scientists, to engage in free speech without interference,” she told ScienceInsider.

Ironically, Shukla might have saved himself some trouble with a bit of procrastination. Several weeks after the scientists sent their letter, an unrelated special report by the Los Angeles Times, as well as reporting by PBS Frontline and InsideClimate, found internal memos that indicate Exxon Mobil has been duping the public about the contributions of greenhouse gases to global warming since 1989. The reports have led two congressmen to request the same action as Shukla, et al.

While it might have worked better for IGES if Shukla remained quiet, it’s heartening that the scientists choose to speak out at all. Past congressional inquires of scientists (which are contentious by nature) means it takes a certain amount of bravery to open oneself up to possible scrutiny. But as Halpren points out, it’s vital to public understanding.

"[Investigations] can send the wrong message to researchers about how valuable their expertise is to society,” Halpren said. “We need scientists to engage in public conversations on science-based issues, no matter how contentious the topic.”

The idea of using RICO to launch an investigation was originally put forth by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in a Washington Post op-ed. In that article, Whitehouse makes the case that oil and gas companies intentionally mislead the public about human contributions to climate change in the same way that cigarette manufacturers downplayed the risks of smoking in the 1990s. As such, he argues, they should be investigated using the same successful application of RICO legislation that the U.S. Department of Justice used to end unethical tobacco marketing.