Did the Department of Energy ask a Scientist to Remove the Words 'Climate Change' from a Grant Proposal?

A professor posted what she claims is an email from the DOE asking her to remove the words “climate change” from her proposal.

Published Aug. 25, 2017

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

On 24 August 2017, Jennifer Bowen, an Ecology professor at Northeastern University, claimed that the Department of Energy wrote to ask her to remove the term "climate change" from her already-approved grant proposal. Bowen posted an email that appeared to be from the DOE asking her to remove the language so that the grant proposal, which is to be funded through the DOE's Joint Genome Institute, could be posted on the department's web site.

Posting a screenshot of the email to Facebook, Bowen stated: “This just happened. I’m just going to leave this here for people to ponder.” The text of the email reads, in part:

I have been asked to contact you to update the wording in your proposal abstract to remove words such as ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change.’ This is being asked as we have to meet the president’s budget language restrictions and don’t want to make any changes without your knowledge or consent. Below is the current wording for your abstract—at your next convenience, will you kindly revise the wording and send back to me as soon as you can? That way we can update our website.

We have reached out to the Department of Energy’s Science Office, as well as a representative from the Joint Genome Institute, asking for confirmation of the request’s authenticity but have received no response from either office. We have also reached out to Dr. Bowen and have yet to receive a response from her.

What we can verify is that the Facilities Integrating Collaborations for User Science (FICUS) program referenced in the email exchange exists. A call for applications was first posted in January 2017 and includes a section that fits Bowen’s research area:

Projects should explore the exchange of carbon, nitrogen and other elements between plants and microbes in above and below ground ecosystems, particularly in response to abiotic stresses such as micronutrient limitation, increased temperature, and drought.

A portion of the text of the grant proposal in question was reproduced in the email to Bowen, and it falls in line with the mandate described above:

Salt marshes sequester an order of magnitude more carbon in their sediments than their terrestrial counterparts because rates of decomposition are inhibited by anoxic, waterlogged soils. Once easily degradable organic matter is preferentially used by microbes, the less labile fraction is buried vertically within the sediments, and is thought to remain stable. Recent work, however, suggests that the addition of nitrogen in its oxidized form (nitrate) may stimulate decomposition of this organic matter by providing an energetically favorable electron acceptor for heterotrophic metabolisms. In controlled experiments we found that the addition of nitrate at 25 cm depth fundamentally altered the microbial community, and stimulated organic matter decomposition.

In a statement provided to E&E News (republished in Science), the DOE said it could not confirm the authenticity of the email, denying it had a policy to restrict language in grants. "There is no departmental-wide policy banning the term 'climate change' from being used in DOE materials. That is completely false," DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes told the magazine.

E&E also reported, however, that other DOE scientists had experienced similar requests regarding climate change language, and that there has been a documented pattern of altering language related to climate science under the Trump administration:

Some DOE career staffers said the incident follows multiple cases of inappropriate line editing of scientific documents by political appointees without relevant training. Other DOE scientists at the national labs said they had not experienced similar censorship. One lab scientist expressed "shock" at the Bowen letter.

In January, then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz released a scientific integrity policy aiming to protect scientists from censorship (E&E News PM, Jan. 11).

Since then, the Trump administration has removed mentions of climate change and clean energy from websites and blocked scientists from attending conferences, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Following the initial publication of this story, Matthew McDonald, the Assistant Vice President for Communications for Northeastern University, provided us with the following statement, which defends the school's ideals but neither confirms nor denies details of the issue at hand:

As a global research university, Northeastern is committed to the independent pursuit of scientific discovery in multiple areas of critical importance, including the sustainability of the planet. A long-standing pillar of the U.S. research model is the belief that science should not be constrained or influenced by partisan politics. As a university, we will continue our steadfast commitment to intellectual inquiry and will follow the facts, wherever they may lead.

On 28 August 2017, Bowen provided us with the following statement, which provided additional background and reiterated the ideals set forth in the Northeastern statement that science should be free of political interference:

Last week, I received a request to remove any reference to “climate change” from the abstract of a funded research proposal. I shared this information on my personal Facebook page because I found it to be a stark reminder of the ongoing politicization of science.
I firmly believe that scientists should have the intellectual freedom to tackle the most pressing issues of the day, regardless of the political landscape. I also believe that researchers, policy makers, and the public should maintain an ongoing dialogue regarding the role that science plays in today’s society.
I do think it is important to make clear that at no time was I asked to change the research scope of my proposed project or modify the contents of the proposal in any other way, with the exception of the language that was to be posted on the government’s website.
I have immense respect for the civil servants who are doing a tremendous job facilitating our research under trying conditions. It is through their hard work and steadfast commitment to the research process that we are moving knowledge forward.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.