An offer to distribute Al Gore's movie about the threat of global warming has put the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) on the hot seat.
Producer and environmental activist Laurie David—wife of comedian Larry David—assumed that NSTA would be all too happy to send its members free copies of An Inconvenient Truth, the climate change tutorial by the former vice president that was a surprise hit at the box office. All NSTA had to do was write a cover letter. But NSTA declined the offer, citing a 2001 policy prohibiting endorsements of any product or message by an outside organization.
That's when things heated up. In a sharply worded op-ed in the 26 November Washington Post, David accused NSTA of rejecting her offer of 50,000 DVDs so as not to offend ExxonMobil, which has given NSTA $6 million over the past decade to help it promote science education. Although the money has paid for such motherhood-and-apple-pie reform efforts as creating a network of science contacts at schools around the country, David told Science that she finds it "shocking" that NSTA would have ties to a company "that has spent millions misinforming the public about global warming."
Not surprisingly, NSTA sees things differently. "We don't do mass distributions for anybody; we don't send our members material that they haven't asked for," says NSTA's executive director, Gerald Wheeler. As for the association's corporate ties, Wheeler freely acknowledges that 16% of NSTA's $23 million a year budget comes from businesses, including 3.7% from the oil and gas industry. "We're working hard to get corporate America engaged in reforming STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education," he says. "And in no case has anybody asked us to say anything [on their behalf], which we would never agree to do, anyway."
Wheeler says NSTA has no desire to suppress information about global warming. Just last month, for example, NSTA's newsletter for middle school teachers ran a five-page article on the topic and mentioned Gore's movie in the first paragraph. He says NSTA has also offered to post a link to the movie on its Web site and to announce the availability of the DVD in a weekly e-mail letter and a monthly publication. In addition, David could put the DVD directly in teachers' hands by buying NSTA's mailing list, at $130 per 1000 names.
David says NSTA's imprimatur was essential and that buying a mailing list is a nonstarter. "You don't want to send out a cold letter, and it costs a lot of money," she says. "There are a thousand reasons why that wouldn't work."
The heated debate looks likely to continue. David says her Web site has been flooded with notes from teachers complaining about NSTA's actions. Wheeler says most queries he's received are more temperate and ask him to explain NSTA's stance. Last night, at the same time NSTA's board of directors was reaffirming its 2001 policy, Al Gore told host Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that his people were trying to work things out with NSTA. Then he threw gasoline on the fire by telling Leno, incorrectly, that ExxonMobil has a seat on NSTA's board.