An Oct. 10 hearing at the State Capitol could send an important message to public servants (and their bosses) who do environmental science: Don’t be afraid to dig up the truth. Paul Wotzka says he filed his federal whistleblower lawsuit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to clear his name as a respected hydrologist and to expose some of the methods used by state government to suppress publicly-funded science. But there’s another important reason for not slinking off quietly after your boss gives you the boot: He wants to show other public employees that they should feel free to speak out, even when what they say makes powerful interests squirm. “There are subtle ways the people in power can rein you in,” he told me in a recent interview. “But in the end, we work for the public.”
There is little doubt Wotzka’s firing this spring has had a chilling effect on other researchers who are doing environmental science in the state’s various agencies. That became crystal clear to me last month when I was interviewing a scientist who has been a Minnesota public servant for many years. At one point, he stopped the interview and said: “I will need to check the story you are writing before it’s published—I don’t want to end up fired like Paul Wotzka.” Feel that? It’s a self-censorship cold front swooping in out of Saint Paul. It’s one thing to be concerned about being quoted correctly and getting the facts right. But in this case, this scientist was concerned that even his factual statements would get him into trouble, because, well, they might trouble some powerful interests. As any master of propaganda knows, self-censorship is much more effective than silence by coercion.
The impact such intimidation is having on environmental research will be addressed during a state Senate hearing Wednesday, Oct. 10, beginning at 1 p.m., in Room 123 of the State Capitol Building. Senator John Marty is holding the hearing, and it will feature testimony from Wotzka, as well as Tyrone Hayes, a University of California-Berkeley professor who has had his own run-in with the MPCA when it comes to freedom of speech. The hearing will be preceded by a press conference at noon in which over 20 environmental, food and farm organizations will call on MPCA Commissioner Brad Moore to reinstate Wotzka. That evening, there will be a presentation/fundraiser involding Wotzka, Hayes, Marty and others concerned about freedom of scientific expression.
All in all, Oct. 10 promises to be a day that proves there’s nothing like the glare of a public spotlight for thawing out the shiver-inducing chill of censorship.