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Censored professor revokes article

By Nicole Zhao     11/1/11 7:00pm

The Rice University community prides itself on the culture of honor and open-minded acceptance that permeates the university, as shown through Rice's Honor Code and the level of diversity in the Rice student body.

So it's not surprising that when a state agency made edits to Oceanography Professor John Anderson's article that Anderson believed constituted censorship, he would not stand for it.

Anderson believes that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, for political reasons, deleted references to sea level rise and human-induced climate change in an article he wrote for a state scientific report.

In response to his refusal to allow the agency to publish the edited version, the TCEQ announced on Oct. 17 that it would no longer publish Anderson's article as part of its 10-chapter report.

"It's irresponsible government," Anderson said. "They're stating that they have their opinion, which, best I can tell, isn't based on science. By refusing to allow me to publish [my article], they're outwardly stating that they control what the public hears and doesn't hear. That's not scientific review, that's censorship."

According to TCEQ Media Relations Manager Terry Clawson, the TCEQ has decided to send Anderson's article to the Geotechnology Research Institute and the Houston Advanced Research Center "to publish [it] as they deem appropriate," with the following disclaimer: "The preparation of this report was financed through grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the TCEQ. The content, findings, opinions and conclusions are the work of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent findings, opinions or conclusions of the EPA or TCEQ."

In response to the agency's actions, every author associated with the 200-page State of the Bay report has requested that their names be withheld from the volume.

"We feel it would impact our credibility as scientists on something where the data on sea level rise has been censored," Vice President of HARC and co-editor of the State of the Bay report Jim Lester told the Houston Chronicle.

According to Commission Spokesman Andy Saenz, the TCEQ insists it did not engage in censorship.

"It is not censorship to correctly state our agency's position in a report that carries our name on it. We are paying for this report, and the assertions and statements will be attributable to the TCEQ. So why would we include questionable information we don't agree with?" Saenz said in an email statement. "Our intent with this report is to give an accurate portrayal of the state of Galveston Bay and not act as a forum for debate and discussion about global warming."

The TCEQ commissioned HARC to produce the report, a periodic publication on the environmental state of Galveston Bay.

Anderson wrote his article, a synopsis of a peer-reviewed, 10-year study he and other scientists conducted, the results of which were published by the Geological Society of America in 2008, as a "public outreach effort" targeted at the non-science community, Anderson said.

In addition to deleting assertions in Anderson's article of the role of humans in global warming, TCEQ officials also struck out a factual statement noting that the sea level in Galveston Bay has been rising at three millimeters per year, six times faster than the long-term average rise of half a millimeter per year, as measured by tide gauges and satellites.

"There's nothing in that chapter that hasn't gone through scientific peer review," Anderson said. "For the state to intervene and say, ‘We don't agree,' [that's] like saying they disagree with a law that's already passed."

Anderson believes that the research presented in his article is crucial to the protection of the bay.

"It is essential that the scientific results of this research be conveyed … most importantly to teachers who are responsible for informing the next generation of coastal caretakers," he said. "We have to accept that these changes are occurring."

The head of the TCEQ is Chairman Bryan Shaw, an engineer known for his remarks questioning the validity of the science behind climate change.

"I don't believe it's fully vetted," Shaw said regarding the science behind climate change during a confirmation hearing on his TCEQ appointment. "It warrants a critical process of looking forward because the implications of moving forward based on the assumption that man-made contribution is the primary driver of climate change may close windows of opportunity for us with regard to the environmental good that we're trying to achieve."

Shaw and the other two TCEQ commissioners were all appointed by Governor Rick Perry, who is also openly skeptical that humans are responsible for climate change.

Anderson said he disapproves of the TCEQ's move to censor and subsequently abandon his article.

"It's one thing to have an administration with its head in the sand. It's altogether another thing to have an administration that tries to put all our heads in the sand," he said.

Brown College sophomore Nathan Truong, a research project intern at the Baylor College of Medicine, sympathized with the state agency's desire to have the article reflect its views.

"It's controversial, of course. The public should hear about [the science], but if the article is under the state agency's name, the article affects how they're seen. If the professor wants the public to hear about it, he could go through another source," Truong said. "From what I've heard from my mentor, for research, each journal has regulations. Some journals want things worded a certain way. Length matters, too. The journal has the right of judgment over what it publishes."

External Vice-Chair of the Honor Council at Rice University and Hanszen College senior Kate Snyder believes that the TCEQ's actions conflict with the university's values.

"I think it's really abominable that the agency would censor science for political reasons," Snyder said. "Honor means not changing something from what it's intended to be for your own personal gain, which is essentially what was done when the government agency changed facts in the paper. Clearly, the government isn't held to the Rice Honor Code, but in terms of our culture of honor … that's a dishonorable thing to do. It's a personal gain that hurts the public."

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