WU professor dumped from oil spill cleanup

| Senior News editor

Everything counts once it’s on the internet.

Physics professor Jonathan I. Katz was asked by the Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to join a team of scientists to help clean up the BP oil spill.

On May 18, one week later, Katz was fired from the job for his controversial writings.

“Some of Professor Katz’s controversial writings have become a distraction from the critical work of addressing the oil spill,” US Department of Energy Press Secretary Stephanie Mueller wrote in an email to Student Life.

Professor Katz’s website hosts several of his articles, including those titled “In Defense of Homophobia,” “Anyone Who bombs Baghdad [when Saddam was in power] Gets My Vote,” “Why Terrorism is Important” and “Cold Thoughts on Global Warming.”

The situation highlights the potential repercussions for publicly expressing politicized views.

“[Katz] and all who have followed the recent events understand that there are consequences for the free expression of controversial positions,” Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics Ken Kelton said in an email to Student Life. “There are often impacts of social views on scientific endeavors.”

The University released a statement about its policy on personal web pages-that they are indeed personal and do not represent the University’s opinion. It also states that, “as long as Professor Katz does not use his University-conferred authority in matters related to students (grading, recommending, mentoring, etc.) to reward those who share his views or punish those who do not, and does not otherwise participate in any discriminatory activity that would violate the university’s antidiscrimination policy, he has a right to free speech to express his opinions under the Web page policy of the university.”

Kelton agreed with this policy.

“Professor Katz has the right as a citizen to express his personal views, even if they fall outside his recognized areas of expertise as a theoretical physicist,” Kelton said. “While I personally disagree strongly with the personal views on his web site, I support his right to hold and express them.”

Katz’s areas of expertise are primarily in astrophysics. He also does work in applied physics and biophysics.

Although the reaction to Katz’s non-scientific work has been negative, Kelton is confident that the physics department has not lost its credibility.

“I regret the negative publicity that has resulted from Professor Katz’s removal from the committee. However, ultimately the reputation of our department rests on the high quality of our teaching and research, which I feel is nationally and internationally well recognized. I am confident that the recent negative publicity will not significantly impact that,” Kelton wrote.

“It is always a fine line that we must walk to respect academic freedom.”

Professor Katz declined to comment.

  • Scott

    Katz is quite the prick in his personal views, but much as it doesn’t affect his standing in the department, it shouldn’t affect his place on the committee. If he can help this particular ecological disaster with his expertise, its not really relevant that he’s a global warming denier. Or a homophobic douche. The oil spill is politicized enough already without worrying about the scientists involved.