Research scientist funded through CU Boulder files complaint against Trump administration

Maria Caffrey alleges the government tried to censor her work on climate change

Maria Caffrey
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A climate scientist at the National Park Service has filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration, alleging that the administration tried to edit her research and retaliated against her for pushing back.

National Park Service climate scientist Maria Caffrey has filed a whistleblower complaint contending the Trump administration tried to edit her research and retaliated against her for pushing back.

Maria Caffrey, whose research funding was funneled through the University of Colorado Boulder, alleges that she’s lost her job, endured stress and been alienated from colleagues because of the reaction to her research. She filed the complaint in July.

The National Park Service did not return a request for comment.

From 2013 to 2016, Caffrey worked on a report called “Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge Projections,” which looked at potential sea level change that could affect national parks. It was ready to be published when she went on maternity leave, she said.

Then, a colleague told her that the report was being altered, which Caffrey said is “highly unusual.”

At a meeting, she learned that the edits essentially took out any mention of anthropogenic — or human-caused — climate change. Caffrey was told that someone above her colleagues was requesting the changes, but she was never given a name.

“What happened after that was a prolonged fight between me and my colleagues,” she said.

Caffrey sees the edits as attempted censorship, and said it was important that words like “anthropogenic” be included in her report because it was an essential part of her research.

“I wasn’t being political,” she said. “… I was simply laying out the science.”

The report presents four scenarios for the future that vary based on much greenhouse gases humans release.

At the same time, Elizabeth Shogren, a reporter for Reveal, had been anticipating Caffrey’s report and realized it was late. Shogren eventually filed Freedom of Information Act and Colorado Open Records requests of emails and reported on the issue.

Caffrey talked with Shogren because she didn’t want to look complicit in the censorship, she said.

Caffrey alleges she was threatened by colleagues, because of her resistance to the edits. She charges that she was told that a climate change program could be shut down, and that a supervisor could be replaced with someone who “wouldn’t be as nice to me,” she said.

Ultimately, the report was released with the references to human-caused climate change, which Caffrey believes was only possible because of the reporting from Reveal, although she was forced to add text and the coauthor removed his name in protest. The result also came “at a great cost to me,” Caffrey said, because “my relationship with my colleagues was destroyed.”

She was reduced to a position as an intern, making less than half of what she did as a researcher. Once her contract was up, she was let go.

“Quite frankly, it was a shock to me and I think it was a shock to my supervisor that they would just pull the rug out from us like that,” she said. “… It was very sad because I had spent my career in the NPS since I had graduated with my Ph.D. I still wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for projects for the Parks, and I have to remind myself that I don’t work there anymore.”

Augusta Wilson, a staff attorney at the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, is representing Caffrey along with Lauren Kurtz. In an emailed statement, Wilson said that Caffrey “is pushing for a full investigation into the retaliation she experienced, as well as to prevent other scientists from experiencing similar situations in the future.”

She declined to provide more details about the status of the complaint because it is an ongoing legal matter.

The complaint asks for disciplinarian action for those who were involved in the editing attempts, Caffrey said, as well as financial compensation for when her salary was reduced and then when she became unemployed.

Right now, Caffrey is struggling with whether she needs to move to a different state for employment while also being a new mother. She’s also watching the proposed Scientific Integrity Act, a federal bill that would protect public scientific research and reports from political and special interests. It’s currently in the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

“My only role as a scientist was to speak the truth,” Caffrey said. “I felt, with this, we were asked to lie to the public, the people who are ultimately paying for these reports to be done. Don’t we have a responsibility to be telling the public about what’s going to be happening to their lands in the future?”

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