Scientists Urge Virgina Attorney General To Drop Investigation of Climate Scientist

More than 800 scientists and academics in Virginia, including nearly 300 from the University of Virginia (UVA), sent a letter to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli this week, urging him to drop his investigation of former UVA Professor Michael Mann’s scientific research.

“This letter shows that much of Virginia’s scientific and academic community is appalled that their attorney general has launched such a blatantly political investigation,” said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which facilitated the organizing of the letter.

UVA has until Thursday, May 27, to decide whether it will contest the attorney general’s “civil investigative demand,” which essentially subpoenaed documents related to state grants Mann received. Cuccinelli, who has said he does not believe climate change is caused by human activity, is investigating Mann under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, which makes it illegal to “knowingly” present a “false or fraudulent” claim to the state to obtain compensation.

“Labeling scientific findings ‘fraudulent’ sets a disturbing precedent for attacking peer-reviewed science in the legal system,” said Grifo.

UCS said the attorney general’s action is just the most recent unjustified attack against climate science and scientists, but the letter signers fear it could have a much more lasting and damaging effect.

“Science is a search for the truth,” said Jeff Holt, an associate professor in UVA’s Department of Neuroscience, one of the 810 people who signed the letter. “If scientists are hassled, reprimanded or sued based on their data or their findings, it will dissuade scientists in their search for the truth. This lawsuit harkens back to the Dark Ages when scientists were tried for heresy when their findings ran contrary to the dogma of the day.” 

Another letter signatory, Amato Evan, an assistant professor in UVA’s Department of Environmental Sciences, is worried about who could be targeted next. “As long as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is in office, in the back of my head I’ll be wondering if my work on global climate change is going to fall under the same senseless attacks as Dr. Mann’s has,” he said. “This feels like harassment, plain and simple, and is wasting the time of the other faculty and staff members in my department. I sincerely hope enough pressure is put on the Virginia attorney general to halt this absurd inquisition.”

The letter makes it clear that a criminal investigation of scientific research is inappropriate: “Fortunately, there are numerous safeguards within science that root out scientific misconduct,” it states. “It is entirely appropriate for scientific institutions to review the work of scientists and hold them accountable for their actions. But scientists who face unwarranted legal intimidation will be less able to make new discoveries that can protect our health, safety, and environment.”

In addition, the letter points out that historically, scientific discovery is held back when government officials harass scientists.

Cuccinelli’s office has demanded that the university turn over what amounts to reams of documents, including correspondence between Mann and other climate scientists whose names appear in emails stolen from Britain’s University of East Anglia that generated media attention late last year. 

In the emails, scientists expressed frustration with relentless attacks on their data and research methods. UCS noted every investigation conducted to date of the email contents has concluded that they have no bearing on climate science, which remains robust. A number of investigations over the last few years also have vindicated Mann’s data and research methods.

Earlier this week the National Academy of Sciences released three
reconfirm climate change science is on solid footing. 

Scientists “are searching for cures for diseases, measuring the toxicity of environmental contaminants, and developing new technologies that will keep America strong,” the letter states. If scientists are to serve the public good, wrote the scientists, “they must have the freedom to explore ideas without fearing that any individual statement or email will be taken out of context.”

Scientists and academics from most of Virginia’s major higher education institutions signed the letter, including Christopher Newport University (5), College of William and Mary (38), George Mason University (85), James Madison University (31), Old Dominion University (19), Radford University (15), Randolph-Macon College (30), University of Mary Washington (21), University of Richmond (26), UVA (296), Virginia Commonwealth University (30), Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (68).

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