With scientists scrambling to copy federal climate data onto private servers before President-elect Donald Trump becomes President Trump, outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell of Seattle told a conference full of scientists Wednesday they should speak out if their bosses interfere with their work.
Many researchers in and out of the federal government are concerned that a Trump administration might take away the funding and the freedom necessary to do science on climate change and other pressing concerns.
On Sunday, the president-elect told Fox News, falsely, that "nobody really knows" whether climate change is real.
Trump's transition team has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for a list of all staffers who have worked on climate change. The energy department rejected that request on Tuesday.
As secretary of the Interior, Jewell oversees a lot of science, including at agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
She told scientists gathered for the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco that climate change is "the most pressing issue of our time." She said researchers have to do more than research: They need to fight disinformation.
"I encourage people to speak up and to talk about the importance of scientific integrity and, if they see that being undermined, to say something about it," Jewell said.
It's unusual for a top Obama administration official to urge people to become whistleblowers. His administration has cracked down severely on whistleblowers, prosecuting more of them than all other presidential administrations combined.
Trump's pick to run the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, has a degree in geology from the University of Oregon.
“It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either,” Zinke said of climate change in an election debate in 2014. “But you don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a maybe."
"Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years," a policy statement issued by the AGU in 2013 states, in agreement with virtually all scientists who study climate. "Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes."
"While important scientific uncertainties remain as to which particular impacts will be experienced where, no uncertainties are known that could make the impacts of climate change inconsequential," the statement by AGU, the professional society of earth and space scientists, continues. "Furthermore, surprise outcomes, such as the unexpectedly rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice, may entail even more dramatic changes than anticipated."
Jewell said that federal climate data is too valuable to just go away, with businesses from Google to the Weather Channel using it every day.
"If you want to back it up and download it, that's great," she said. "But I don't think you have to panic."
Jewell said she was optimistic that whoever fills her chair at the Interior Department will realize how valuable science is, rather than try to damage its integrity.
"It's just too important fundamentally to the success of our economy and our nation," she said.
Jewell encouraged scientists to learn to speak the language of business to make their case before a business-oriented Trump administration.