Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Elections have consequences

Eli stumbled across a very jumbled story in the last couple of days. It's been blogged on before, but the bunny has a little twist. On one level it is the usual state university president jumping on an inconvenient faculty member. Buried a bit under the leaves is a lesson on how elections have consequences and bureaucracies have momentum. There remains an interesting story here for any reporter who wants to dig a bit. Eli, is just a techno-bunny, but this one could be much more amusing than the various state climatologist dust ups. (Twist 1, context)

The short story is that about a year and a half ago NOAA was gung ho to allow exploratory drilling in Bristol Bay Alaska, a wild place with major commercial fisheries. Eli is not going to get into the rights and wrongs of this, that is another discussion and you have the links, what is interesting is that Rick Steiner, a marine scientist and a faculty member at the University of Alaska got side-ways about this with Mark Hamilton the President of the University of Alaska, NOAA which was pushing the drilling and the NOAA Sea Grant Program.

Shell, NOAA and the university had had public meetings about how fishing and drilling could co-exist in Bristol Bay and there was a planned oil lease sale. Steiner was excluded from these meetings (and, as things go these days, he had the Email to prove it). He held a press conference in March 2008, during which he cast derision and scorn on the fish and drill crowd. A couple of months later, one of the Sea Grant honchos at UAlaska, Denis Wiesenburg, Dean of the School of Fisheries, visited NOAA in downtown Silver Spring. He reports

I spent the morning of May 7 in Silver Spring, MD, meeting with NOAA program managers. In the morning I met with the national Sea Grant Director Leon Cammen, Deputy Director Jim Murray and Associate Director Nicola Garber. . . .We also had a discussion about the appropriate role of Sea Grant advisory agents in providing information to the public.

At that meeting, Jim Murray advised me that they had an "issue with Rick Steiner." They felt he was acting as an advocate and asked if he was being paid with Sea Grant funds. I told him that he received one month of salary from our Sea Grant grant. Jim expressed concern about this and stated that "one agent can cause problems nationally." The suggestion was made that he not be paid from Sea Grant funds. I asked them for some documentation that they did not wish Sea Grant agents (aka MAP in Alaska) to advocate. They gave me a copy of the Sea Grant manual on extension agents and opened it to page 36 on Neutral Brokers of Information. The next day, I sent the e-mail below to Professor Steiner's supervisor, Paula Cullenberg with a copy of the two pages they noted during the discussion.

Our Sea Grant funding is a grant. We have no obligation to pay faculty from the grant unless they are contributing to the goals of the grant. From my discussions with the national Sea Grant office, they do not believe Professor Steiner is contributing to their mission. On the contrary, they worry that his actions in Alaska could have negative implications nationally as stated above by Jim Murray during the meeting.

At the Sea Grant meeting in Silver Spring, I did not bring up this topic. Jim Murray did. During FY09, Professor Steiner is receiving one month slary from our Sea Grant grant. The grant is up for renewal this year. It will be my recommendation that Professor Steiner's salary not be included in the grant and the (sic) he continue to receive his nine month salary from our Fund 1 budget as required by by the CBA
Wiesenburg's December 2008 evaluation letter to Steiner is slightly less friendly. In it he quotes the operative paragraph of the Sea Grant Policy
But as neutral providers of science based information to decision makers, we do not suggest what those decisions should be. We help them understand their choices and the implications of those choices. We do not take positions on issues of public debate.
However, Steiner had, at least in a letter sent to the University of Alaska and NOAA, not advocated as a Sea Grant agent, but as a Professor at the University. Long story short, Steiner, got moved out of his office into a broom closet and his life was made difficult. This caused him to protest against the usual brick wall. He got the letter removed from his file and a one day AAUP seminar on academic freedom, but little else.

In February 2009, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), took up the cudgels for Steiner and sent a letter to Jane Lubchenco who had been nominated to become Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the NOAA Administrator. A short time thereafter any oversight of the Alaska Sea Grant program was removed from James Murray. Elections have their consequences. (Twist 2, consequences) FOA requests for emails to and from Dr. Jim on the matter might be interesting to reporters.

Steiner's Sea Grant funding got chopped in April with a one year extension from university funds. Didn't the locals get the news that there was new management in DC? NOAA has now reversed its position and says there should not be drilling in Bristol Bay. (Twist 3, President McCain would not approve.) Elections have their consequences.

Steiner plans to resign after 30 years.

Anyone interested in the entire 15 year saga, can look here.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is certainly interesting for me to read the post. Thank you for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. BTW, why don't you change design :).