NSTA responds

Contributed by
Nov 28, 2006

Earlier today, I wrote about the National Science Teachers Association rejecting an offer to distribute DVDs of "An Inconvenient Truth" to its members.

Gerry Wheeler, Executive Director of the NSTA, responds to the controversy on the NSTA website:

NSTA policy states that the association cannot endorse any outside organization's products and/or messages to its members. Therefore, we do not send any such products and/or messages directly to our members, regardless of the source.

If the Washington Post OpEd had mentioned that in the first place, there wouldn't have been such a stir (in fact, the entire OpEd would have been unnecessary). Was this policy made clear to Laurie David, the author of that OpEd? I wonder. If so, why didn't she mention it in her article? And if not, why not?

Wheeler goes on:

What was not mentioned in the op-ed is the fact that during conversations with Ms. David's representative we suggested making the DVD available via alternative means of distribution (e.g. by providing a mailing list of our members to producers, announcing its availability in our publications, etc.). It appears that these alternative distribution mechanisms were unsatisfactory.

Hmmm, this casts a lot of doubt on David's article now. Her whole point is that 1) NSTA refused to help her with the DVDs, and 2) the NSTA is influenced by the oil companies. How strong is that first point?

There still, however, is the question of the oil companies swaying NSTA policy:

Let me specifically address the programs outlined in the op-ed: ExxonMobil has been a long-time sponsor of the national network we call Building a Presence for Science. In this project we have identified a "point of contact" for science in over 40,000 school buildings. Originally conceived to provide a copy of the National Science Education Standards to each school, NSTA now regularly sends these points of contact useful information on science education that they share with teachers in their buildings. Not once has ExxonMobil asked to use this network for their own purposes. [emphasis mine]

It does sound like they have policy in place to avoid being influenced. That last sentence is kind of funny, in that it's not the same as saying the information is not influenced ExxonMobil. However, that strikes me as syntactic pedantry on my part. :-)

The Shell Oil Company funds national research science experts to present at our national conference, where they speak directly to science teachers about their field of research. NSTA chooses the scientists, invites the scientists, and hosts the scientists at these conferences. In addition, the Shell Oil Company sponsors the Shell Science Teaching award for K-12 science teachers who have had a positive impact on his or her students, school, and community through exemplary classroom teaching. This award program is administered by NSTA and the recipients are chosen by science teachers selected by NSTA.

Again, a stronger wording would have helped here, but also again it sounds like they are doing what they can to avoid being influenced.

Wheeler goes on:

Global warming is a very important science/societal issue. NSTA has always supported sound environmental science education.

Yikes! Better wording would have been preferred here! "Sound science" is a neocon buzzword for "science we approve of". Coincidence, I imagine.

However, I am still very concerned about the email the NSTA originally sent to Ms. David. She quotes the NSTA as saying:

Accepting the DVDs, they wrote, would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.

It's hard to see that this as taken out of context, and it really does sound like the NSTA was trying to protect its sponsors.

This is clearly a controversy that is not going to die down right away. But I still have some lingering questions:

  1. Was Ms. David informed about the NSTA policy of not supporting outside organizations?
  2. Was Ms. David informed that the NSTA would help her advertise the DVDs to their members?
  3. If the NSTA is not influenced by sponsors, then why did they make the statement about "unnecessary risk" to their support?

I still won't come out and accuse the NSTA of being swayed by sponsors, nor will I accuse Ms. David of being duplicitous, as the evidence supports neither conclusion. I still want to hear more, and, clearly, there is more going on here than was revealed in the Washington Post editorial. I don't think this issue has been put to rest.

I have to add that in February 2006 Gerry Wheeler was on a panel with me at the American Association for the Advancement of Science . His passion for science and science education are not questioned in my mind. He clearly wants to do what is best for both.

I plan to continue to monitor this, and also the opinions posted on the NSTA discussion board.

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