Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The CIA has reactivated a Clinton-era program, code-named MEDEA (Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis), that allows environmental scientists access to classified intelligence. The CIA’s network of measurement technology on satellites, ships and planes is ideal for spying on America’s enemies, but it also is well-suited for data collection in a number of scientific disciplines, including climatology, ecology and geology. In 1992, at the behest of Vice President Al Gore, the CIA granted security clearances to almost 70 scientists, thereby permitting them access to highly classified intelligence-gathering techniques. The scientists were allowed to study archival data and propose innovative uses of CIA resources for scientific research.

Project MEDEA may seem like a free lunch, or at least free science, but it’s not that simple. The rigors of CIA security coexist uneasily with the principles of science. Fundamental to the process of peer review, itself a keystone in the scientific method, is the uninhibited availability of raw data for evaluation by the scientific community. Think of it as a fact check. Research derivative of the CIA, however, is classified. So MEDEA science comes with a disclaimer - literally. A 1996 paper on desertification, based on research from project MEDEA, was accepted for publication by the journal Global Change Biology, but the editors included a notice that “Limitations on access to the data make it impossible for the journal’s usual review process to assess all aspects of data quality, selection, or interpretation.”

In light of the damage done to the reputation of science by the recent “Climategate” scandals - in which data that should have been made public wasn’t and a group of scientists discussed ways to thwart the peer-review process and intimidate peer-reviewed journals, the scientific community should be wary of depending on research where secrecy antithetical to the openness of science appears to be a requirement.

William Yeatman is an energy policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a contributor to

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