AAAS Board of Directors: Virginia Attorney General Threatens Research with Investigation of Climate Scientist

The AAAS Board of Directors has asked Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli to either justify his investigation of climate researcher Michael Mann or end it, calling it “an apparently political action” that could have a chilling effect on scientific research.

The position was underscored in a commentary by Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science, published 23 May in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Leshner wrote that Cuccinelli’s investigation “goes beyond the bounds of appropriate oversight, and could threaten the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas.”

On 23 April, Cuccinelli requested detailed information from the University of Virginia on five grants for climate change research involving Mann while he was on the school’s faculty from 1999 to 2005. Mann is currently director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

The AAAS Board, while acknowledging the responsibility of state and federal officials to oversee the proper use of grant funds, said Cuccinelli’s request “goes far beyond what is needed to determine financial propriety, including substantive emails with colleagues, computer codes, and the detailed data resulting from Dr. Mann’s work.” The lack of a clear rationale for the inquiry suggests that it “may be aimed at something other than financial malfeasance,” the Board said in its 18 May statement.

The AAAS Board said scientific progress occurs largely through a self-correcting system of peer review, shared results and critical evaluation of new data and ideas. It noted that thousands of studies, including Mann’s work, have “produced a growing mountain of evidence leading to the scientific consensus on human-induced global climate change.” AAAS and other leading scientific organizations have affirmed that consensus.

Cuccinelli, who believes the jury is still out on whether climate change is caused by human activity, has said he is investigating whether Mann defrauded taxpayers when seeking state grant money for his research.

“Mr. Cuccinelli’s investigation, unless based on a much more substantial body of evidence than is apparent, could inappropriately inhibit the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and thus limit the progress of science,” the AAAS Board said.

Scientists and policymakers may disagree with the scientific conclusions of Mann and others, the Board said, but there are well-established means to resolve disagreements over research results within the scientific community. “Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations simply for providing scientific results that may be controversial, particularly on high-profile topics of interest to society,” the Board said.

The American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, and scholars from around the nation have criticized Cuccinelli’s demand for documents related to Mann’s research. He has given the University of Virginia until 27 May to respond. The school’s Faculty Senate Executive Council said Cuccinelli’s action “directly threatens academic freedom,” and faculty members have urged the school’s Board of Visitors to challenge the attorney general’s action in court.

Mann has been a target of global warming skeptics, both for his “hockey stick” graph on global temperature trends (work upheld by a U.S. National Research Council panel) and for comments in e-mails stolen from a British climate research group. A Penn State inquiry on the e-mails found no evidence Mann had tried to falsify or suppress data. Even some ardent climate skeptics, such as long-time Mann critic Steve McIntyre, have condemned Cuccinelli’s action.

On 7 May, Science published a letter from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences decrying attacks on climate research. The letter was drafted before Cuccinelli’s action, but water expert Peter Gleick, one of the authors, told the Washington Post that the attorney general’s demand “is precisely the kind of attack on climate scientists that the letter criticizes.”

Links

Read the full text of the new statement from the AAAS Board of Directors.

Read the full text of a commentary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch by AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner.

Read the Board’s 2006 statement on climate change.