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May 7, 2010 

VA Attorney General’s Misguided Investigation

Virginia scientists and academic leaders are encouraged to sign a letter asking the attorney general to stop his investigation at www.ucsusa.org/vascientistletter.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's office is investigating former University of Virginia (UVA) professor Michael Mann, a climate scientist, under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act (FATA). The attorney general, who does not believe climate change is caused by human activity, says he wants to learn whether Mann used state grants to defraud Virginia taxpayers about climate change. The section of the FATA in question makes it illegal to "knowingly" present a "false or fraudulent" claim to the state in order to obtain compensation.

On April 23, Cuccinelli's office served UVA with a Civil Investigative Demand, essentially subpoenaing documents related to Mann's grants. Mann was on the UVA faculty between 1999 and 2005. He now works as a professor at Penn State University.

Why is this Investigation Inappropriate?
Science thrives on rigorous debate and a frank exchange of different ideas and perspectives. The freedom to openly disagree and discuss contentious scientific topics is fundamental to the scientific method. Research shows that scientific discovery is held back when government officials harass or intimidate scientists. This seemingly unprecedented action could set a dangerous precedent and stymie communication among scientists in many disciplines, preventing them from doing their best work.

Labeling controversial scientific findings as "fraudulent" is extremely troubling.

Vigorous debate and exchange of differing ideas are at the very core of the scientific method. Disagreement among scientists—to say nothing of disagreements between scientists and —is simply not the same thing as fraud.

Harassment of scientists can have disastrous effects for public health and public policy. One cautionary tale is that of Herbert Needleman, a pioneering researcher into the effects of lead on children whose research eventually led to policies that removed lead from gasoline. Needleman's work threatened the profit margins of the lead industry, which attacked him and his scientific reputation. Like Mann, Needleman was repeatedly exonerated but faced years of legal wrangling, investigations and hearings that took him away from his work and deprived the public of his insights and research.

The danger is that the subpoena will be used to further erode the public discourse on climate change and many other issues critical to public health and safety. Any individual email discussion or scientific paper may legitimately contain speculations or arguments that later turn out to be false. This is completely routine and should not be taken as evidence of fraud, much less evidence against climate change. By challenging minor mistakes made by their peers, scientists move slowly towards a better understanding of our world.

UCS wrote a letter to Cuccinelli asking him to rescind the subpoena. The American Association of University Professors has joined the ACLU in asking the University of Virginia to resist the subpoena. The UVA Faculty Senate has stated that Cuccinelli's actions "directly threaten academic freedom."

Is There Substance to the Investigation?
Scientific misconduct does occasionally occur, but the responsibility for policing that misconduct should reside with other scientific experts, such as journal editors, university colleagues or the National Academies of Science. Those with adequate scientific expertise have repeatedly validated the research of Mann and his colleagues.

Mann has been at the center of global warming deniers' attacks. His critics have focused on a "hockey stick" graph he first published in a 1998 paper in Nature. The graph depicts average global temperatures as stable over the last 900 years then rising sharply—like a hockey stick's blade—in the last century.  

After certain members of Congress raised concerns about Mann's graph and associated research findings, the National Research Council at the National Academies of Science was asked to look into the matter. A report issued on June 22, 2006 found the conclusion "that warming in the last few decades of the 20th century was unprecedented over the last thousand years" to be plausible. No scientific misconduct by Mann or his colleagues was found.

In addition to being cleared by the National Academies of Science, Mann's work was cleared by a chief critic. Keith Briffa, a University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit scientist, initially questioned the hockey stick being included in the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report because it conflicted with his tree ring data findings. Briffa now agrees that Mann's findings, including the sharp increase in temperatures in the late twentieth century, are correct.

But despite being repeatedly cleared, global warming deniers continue to attack Mann using the same erroneous arguments. Cuccinelli's investigation appears to follow this trend.

The attorney general's office is demanding that the university turn over many types of documents, including correspondence between Mann and other climate scientists whose names appear in emails stolen from the University of East Anglia, which were publicized last year.

Global warming deniers have repeatedly quoted a 1999 email from Phil Jones, the director of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, to Michael Mann. Jones discussed two unrelated statistical techniques from two different researchers (Mann and Keith Briffa) and used the phrases "trick" and "hide the decline" to describe them. Global warming deniers claim the scientists were discussing hiding the fact that global temperatures had stopped rising. The claim is absurd; when the email was written in 1999 temperatures had risen during the past decade.

What they actually were discussing was how Mann had merged Briffa's conflicting tree ring data from earlier times with thermometer data for recent decades. This "trick"—a method of stitching together two sets of different data—had been published openly for all to see just the year before in the highly respected scientific journal, Nature.

Just as the hockey stick controversy was resolved in Mann's favor, so have investigations conducted into whether the stolen emails revealed any scientific wrongdoing.

On February 3, Penn State determined that Mann was not guilty of suppressing or falsifying data; not guilty of deleting or concealing emails or other information; and not guilty of misusing privileged or confidential information.

On March 30, the British House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee found no evidence of scientific misconduct in emails stolen from climate scientists, including Mann. The committee said that nothing in the stolen e-mails or the controversy fueled by their publication challenged scientific consensus that "global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity." An investigation by an independent panel led by Lord Oxburgh released in April reached similar conclusions.

Launching another investigation into Mann's research is yet another dog barking up the same tree. More disturbingly, it is a dangerous escalation of attacks against climate change researchers.

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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