Science under Attack: Legal Harassment of Climate Scientist Michael Mann

Threats to scientific inquiry and academic freedom expand in Virginia and elsewhere

Beginning in April 2010, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli engaged in a campaign of harassment against climate scientist Michael Mann through a groundless, intrusive investigation of his work at the University of Virginia between 1999 and 2005.

Escalating the attacks in early 2011, a Virginia activist group that denies the scientific consensus on climate change sought the same information through the state’s open records law. These actions threatened the ability of scientists in Virginia to ask tough questions about our world—and pursue contentious lines of research.

No matter what has prompted your investigation, there is no doubt that it will be interpreted as a witch hunt...you may consult with colleagues in Salem to determine how long it takes to live this type of thing down.
—Climate skeptic Thomas Fuller, May 2, 2010

The attack begins

Cuccinelli's initial subpoena, delivered to UVA on April 23, 2010, stated that Mann was being investigated under provisions of the Virginia Fraud against Taxpayers Act of 2002, which establishes civil penalties for making fraudulent claims for payment from the state. The "fraudulent claims" in question were applications for state-funded grants which partly supported Mann's work at UVA. The subpoena demanded that the University hand over not only all data and documents created by Mann in connection with his grant-funded research, but also all correspondence between Mann and a long list of his colleagues.

Fighting back

The University at first announced its intention to cooperate with the investigation, but decided to fight it after objections from its own faculty and many organizations, including UCS. Finding no hint of evidence that fraud had been committed, a Virginia judge dismissed Cuccinelli's initial subpoena in August 2010; the Virginia Supreme Court rejected the state's appeal of that dismissal in March 2012.

For its part, UCS issued a letter to Cuccinelli and produced a factchecker that explains why his investigation was misguided and explores previous reviews of Mann’s work. UCS also organized a letter from 800 Virginia scientists and academic leaders condemning Cuccinelli’s investigation, and filed amicus briefs on August 17, 2010 and April 26, 2011 supporting the University of Virginia in court.

New fronts open

In a related move, the American Tradition Institute submitted a Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to UVA that seeks the same broad range of records as the subpoenas. The Prince William County Circuit Court ruled in the University's favor in this suit in September 2012, a ruling that was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court in April 2014.

Similar burdensome and expansive requests were recently made by groups in Wisconsin and Michigan, where universities pledged to protect academic freedom and temper their responses accordingly. In response to a letter from UCS and eleven other groups, UVA President Teresa Sullivan pledged to use “all available exemptions” when responding to the FOIA request and to balance the public interest in academic freedom against the public interest in disclosure.

Scientists and academics—and even some critics who reject the scientific consensus on climate change—agree that these misguided and inappropriate attacks must stop. There has likewise been a chorus of condemnation from the press, political leaders, and legal scholars and organizations.

UCS has assembled a timeline of events, editorial comments, and statements from scientists, academics and other groups related to these attacks.

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