An unwelcome ‘climate’ for scientists?
By Paul Guinnessy, Physics Today on May 11, 2010 6:34 PM
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in a blatantly political move to help strengthen his support among the right wing for his bid to become the next governor, is causing uproar in the science community by investigating climate scientist and former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann.
Cuccinelli is accusing Mann of defrauding Virginia taxpayers by receiving research grants to study global temperatures. Mann, who is now based at the Pennsylvania State University, hasn’t worked in Virginia since 2005.
The subpoena, which currently isn’t attached to any lawsuit, requires the University of Virginia to provide Cuccinelli with thousands of documents and e-mails dating from 1999 to 2005 regarding Mann’s research. The accusation is tied to Mann and coworkers’ “hockey stick” graph that was included in a 2001 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The graph displays annual global average temperatures by merging a wide variety of data sources that were used in some private e-mails made public when the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit e-mail server got hacked.
Not answering the question
When Cuccinelli appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU radio on Friday, he claimed the investigation was not into Mann’s academic work, but instead was “directed at the expenditure of dollars. Whether he does a good job, bad job or I don’t like the outcome—and I think everybody already knows his position on some of this is one that I question. But that is not what that’s about.”
However, the letter demanding materials gives a different impression. It asks, along with Mann’s correspondence with 39 other climate scientists, for “any and all computer algorithms, programs, source code, or the like created or edited by … Mann.”
This was emphasized when Cuccinelli spoke to the Washington Post, stating “in light of the Climategate e-mails, there does seem to at least be an argument to be made that a course was undertaken by some of the individuals involved, including potentially Michael Mann, where they were steering a course to reach a conclusion. Our act, frankly, just requires honesty.”
There hasn’t been an investigation by Virginia’s attorney general’s office into the funding of research grants of this nature before. Moreover, only one of the five grants under suspicion was funded by Virginia taxpayers through the university; the others were federal grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.
The University of Virginia was originally going to succumb to Cuccinelli’s request. In a statement released to the press last Thursday the university said it was “required by law to comply.”
Shortly afterward, the University of Virginia Faculty Senate Executive Council issued its own statement, which ends:
We maintain that peer review by the scientific community is the appropriate means by which to identify error in the generation, presentation and interpretation of scientific data. The Attorney General’s use of his power to issue a CID under the provisions of Virginia’s FATA is an inappropriate way to engage with the process of scientific inquiry. His action and the potential threat of legal prosecution of scientific endeavor that has satisfied peer-review standards send a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth’s climate and indeed to scholars in any discipline. Such actions directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.
This was shortly followed by a joint letter to the university from the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors asking the University of Virginia to follow procedures to appeal the subpoena.
The letters seem to have had some effect: The Washington Post reported that the university is now “considering” its options before the Friday deadline to appeal is up.
State Senator Donald McEachin issued a statement, in which he stated he will submit a bill so that in the future the attorney general cannot issue a subpoena without also issuing a lawsuit.
“This is not only ludicrous and frivolous, wasting more taxpayer dollars and trampling on academic freedom, but the Attorney General has deprived Mr. Mann of his constitutional rights,” said McEachin.
Part of a bigger trend
On Friday, although it was put together before Cuccinelli issued his subpoena, Science published a letter by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences, decrying “political assaults” against climate scientists and “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution” and spelling out again the basic facts of what we know about the changing climate.
The letter was triggered by veiled threats from Senator James Inhofe, a well-known climate-change denier, to criminally investigate scientists over their research, and the political response to the CRU e-mails.
According to Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a research center in Oakland, California—who spoke with New York Times reporter Sindya N. Bhanoo—before the NAS members gave the letter to Science, the group had first submitted it to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, all of whom declined to run it.