WASHINGTON - Nasa, accused of censoring its scientists on global warming and the origin of the universe, has pledged to reform its policies.
The move followed more than a week of revelations in The New York Times and on the internet about internal tussles between Nasa writers and researchers and the US space agency's public affairs office at its Washington headquarters.
A key figure in the controversy, George Deutsch, resigned on Tuesday. He had told Nasa writers in an email to refer to the Big Bang as a "theory" because Nasa should not discount "intelligent design by a creator."
The Times and the scientificactivist.blogspot.com website reported that Deutsch, who worked on President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, lied about his college degree.
"The theory that the universe was created by a 'big bang' is just that -- a theory," Deutsch wrote in an email on October 17, 2005, which was obtained by Reuters. "It is not proven fact; it is opinion. Yes, the scientific community by and large may share this opinion, but that doesn't make it correct...
"It is not Nasa's place, nor should it be, to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator -- the other half of the argument," the email continued.
Most scientists believe that a monster explosion, the Big Bang, gave birth to the universe.
The email appeared to conform to Bush's views on the debate over intelligent design and the theory of evolution, as he said last August: "Both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about."
Nasa spokesman Dean Acosta confirmed on Wednesday that Deutsch's resignation had been accepted, and added in an email, "As we have stated in the past, Nasa is in the process of revising our public affairs policies across the agency to ensure our commitment to open and full communications."
This was in line with a statement issued last Saturday by Nasa Administrator Michael Griffin.
"The job of the Office of Public Affairs, at every level in Nasa, is to convey the work done at Nasa to our stakeholders in an intelligible way," Griffin wrote. "It is not the job of public affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by Nasa's technical staff."
Besides the question over Nasa's description of the Big Bang, climate scientists and those who write about their work at Nasa said reports on global warming were "constantly watered down" to minimise the connection to the burning of fossil fuels and other human-made pollution.
One scientist, James Hansen of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, was quoted as saying in a New York Times story last month that the Bush administration had tried to stop him from speaking out after he called publicly for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.
"They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," Hansen said in the Times article.
A call and email to Hansen on Wednesday were not immediately returned.
Astronomer Phil Plait, who runs the badastronomy.com website, was incensed over Deutsch's actions.
"There are so many issues about the Deutsch affair that it's hard to know which one to be most outraged about," Plait said in an email.
"But I suspect that in the long run it's the culture of anti-scientific attitudes, the suppression of science, that's the most disturbing and the most damaging."