Field of Science

Virginia's war on science and academic freedom

The attorney general of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, is waging a war on science. Earlier this week, a federal judge dismissed Cuccinelli's lawsuit against the University of Virginia, but Cuccinelli has already announced that he will appeal the decision. This battle threatens not just climate researchers, but any scientist working in the state of Virginia.

Cuccinelli is a disturbingly right-wing politician whose primary actions since taking office have all been designed, seemingly, for his own political gain. He doesn't seem to mind wasting the tax dollars of Virginia's citizens as long as he can get his own name in the headlines.

His current battle is against global warming. Back in May, he announced with great fanfare that he was suing the University of Virginia over the work of climate scientist Michael Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. It appears that Mr. Cucinelli disagrees with Prof. Mann over his findings about global warming. Prof. Mann is one of the world's leading experts on global warming, and he co-authored the study that produced the "hockey stick graph" showing a dramatic increase in temperature in recent decades:

The conclusions that the Earth is warming up, and that humans are one of the main causes, are no longer controversial within the scientific community, especially after the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) issued its report a few years ago. Nonetheless, many global warming denialists, including Mr. Cucinelli, continue to dispute them.

But Cucinelli isn't just a global warming denialist. He's also the attorney general of Virginia, which gives him quite a bit of power within that state. He's not a scientist, but that didn't stop him from suing the University of Virginia. His legal "trick" - what allowed him to use his power to go after Prof. Mann - hinges on the fact that Prof. Mann formerly was a professor at UVA, and while working there, he received a small grant from the state to support his work. (Never mind that the vast majority of his funding came from the federal government.) This was enough for Cucinelli to sue UVA, claiming that Prof. Mann had committed fraud by misusing state funds.

Cucinelli demanded that the University release all documents related to Prof. Mann's work, including all emails, laboratory notes, and any other correspondence since 1999. (This was a classic "fishing expedition: he didn't say what he was looking for.) To its credit, UVA refused, citing academic freedom, and challenged Cucinelli in court. The judge who dismissed the case pointed out that Cucinelli's suit was so vague that it didn't even specify how it was that Prof. Mann committed fraud. Apparently Cucinelli was unable to come up with a single concrete example of fraud.

Academic freedom is often cited in defense of questionable behaviors, but this case goes to the very heart of what academic freedom is all about. University professors - scientists, economists, historians, all of us - should be free to pursue the evidence wherever it takes us, and to write about our findings without fear of retribution. Even if his lawsuit fails on appeal, Cucinelli's lawsuit threatens to cast a chill over research in Virginia. Will scientists at UVA or other state universities, perhaps concerned about lawsuits, word their findings more carefully in the future? Will they simply avoid research on controversial topics, even if those topics are important to society?

The Virginia attorney general's groundless lawsuit, based on his purely political views and ambitions, is clearly intended to intimidate academic scientists at Virginia universities. Prof. Mann himself called the case "criminal harrassment." This kind of political threat is reminiscent of the oppressive regimes of the Soviet Union, whose scientists only published findings that met with the approval of their political masters. Political threats are a recipe for bad science.

UVA is a great university, but I'm glad I don't work there right now. If I did, I'd probably be looking to move.

2 comments:

  1. Cooch is a distraction. The dangerous one is McDonnell. Never, never, never trust a religious conservative who looks sane.

    ReplyDelete
  2. and it is disgasting that serious threat is like a game into hands of some people

    ReplyDelete

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