Mike the Mad Biologist

For those who haven’t heard rightwing extremist Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has subpoenaed all of the documents related to climatologist Michael Mann’s state-funded research while Mann was at the University of Virginia (italics mine):

In papers sent to UVA April 23, Cuccinelli’s office commands the university to produce a sweeping swath of documents relating to Mann’s receipt of nearly half a million dollars in state grant-funded climate research conducted while Mann– now director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State– was at UVA between 1999 and 2005.

If Cuccinelli succeeds in finding a smoking gun like the purloined emails that led to the international scandal dubbed Climategate, Cuccinelli could seek the return of all the research money, legal fees, and trebled damages.

“Since it’s public money, there’s enough controversy to look in to the possible manipulation of data,” says Dr. Charles Battig, president of the nonprofit Piedmont Chapter Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment, a group that doubts the underpinnings of climate change theory….

Among the documents Cuccinelli demands are any and all emailed or written correspondence between or relating to Mann and more than 40 climate scientists, documents supporting any of five applications for the $484,875 in grants, and evidence of any documents that no longer exist along with proof of why, when, and how they were destroyed or disappeared.

One former UVA climate scientist now working with Michaels worries about politicizing– or, in his words, creating a “witch hunt”– what he believes should be an academic debate….

Making his comments via an online posting under an earlier version of this story, Knappenberger worries that scientists at Virginia’s public universities could become “political appointees, with whoever is in charge deciding which science is acceptable, and prosecuting the rest. Say good-bye to science in Virginia.”

Regarding grant funding, one review criterion is the research environment. Typically, this refers to the facilities and other infrastructure. For example, if you’re proposing to do genome sequencing, you must have sufficient technology and capacity to actually do the proposed work. It can also involve having other resources that can be tapped if necessary, such as a departmental statistician. Now, suppose a climatologist from UVA submitted a proposal. Should a reviewer take into account the potential for political mischief interfering with the ability to conduct the research? What if the researcher has a state grant, and could be investigated as Mann is? Keep in mind that most faculty receive start up funds from their institutions (money awarded by the university upon hire to provision the lab and serve as initial funding). I wouldn’t put it past someone like Cuccinelli to use that as a pretext for a witch hunt.

Given Cuccinelli’s political lunacy leanings, it’s not just climatology we should worry about. What about some who is also doing stem cell research? Or sexually transmitted diseases? The latter is not far-fetched. In a field I work in, one project addresses sexually transmitted diseases in teenagers using some creative methods. It’s an important study, but everyone single colleague I know has said that if conservative fucking morons like Cuccinelli were to find out about it, they would start complaining–the funding agency showed some guts and took a chance on this.

(An aside: For obvious reasons, I’m not going into further detail about the project. But there’s no chilling effect on science. None at all.)

I’m not saying reviewers should be ‘punishing’ VA for Cuccinelli’s stupidity. First, that’s petty (and, depending on the agency, illegal), even for me. Second, people shouldn’t be punished because other people, like Cuccinelli, are fucking morons. But certain research areas make theopolitical conservatives all hot and bothered. If their political chicanery and opportunism might impair the progress of the research or the researcher to do the project, then, that should be considered, just as an instituion’s track record in other areas should be considered (e.g., administrative misuse of funds).

Discuss.

Comments

  1. #1 Raging Bee
    May 3, 2010

    On what probable cause are the subpoenas based? And if there’s any such cause, why weren’t any questions raised back when Mann was actually working for UVA?

  2. #2 D. C.
    May 3, 2010

    So what’s next on the right’s agenda? Sue the sociology department if they publish research that concludes that abstinence only programs don’t work? Sue the biology department for not funding research into young earth creationism?

    When did republicans develop this intense hatred of academia?

  3. #3 Keith
    May 3, 2010

    I’m sorry my state’s AG is an idiot; I did not vote for him

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    May 3, 2010

    Raging Bee: The probable cause is based on the allegations of data manipulation that AGW pseudoskeptics raised based on the CRU e-mails. Never mind that the allegations have been debunked by several panels of inquiry. Cuccinelli is himself an AGW pseudoskeptic, so that’s his probable cause. As for why now, keep in mind that Cuccinelli was only elected last November.

    I don’t see how the requests could withstand scrutiny in court. For one thing, Cuccinelli has requested any correspondence between Mann and any RA. RAs are usually graduate students, so some of those communications would qualify as educational records under federal law–meaning that they cannot be released without the consent of the student in question. To overcome that restriction, Cuccinelli would need something more substantial than a request for a fishing expedition. As for why the UVa administration did not quote the relevant *federal* law in telling Cuccinelli to take a long walk on a short pier, I have no idea.

  5. #5 Tantalus Prime
    May 3, 2010

    Take it one step earlier than funding.

    Don’t you think that those about to enter graduate school or the job market will think twice about applying to a school in Virginia? How do you attract talent when stuff like this happens? I know the job market is tight now, but issues like this have to weigh on your mind when deciding where you will be doing your research for the next 5, 10, or 20 years.

    I think we have already seen such things at work in some parts of the country, and this won’t make things easier for Virginia.

  6. #6 Johnny Vector
    May 3, 2010

    Well put, Keith. Though I prefer that phrase in the original French.

  7. #7 Raging Bee
    May 3, 2010

    Eric: so you’re saying Coochie’s probable cause comes from a totally unrelated case from a different university in a different country where no wrongdoing was actually found? Coming from the hard-core-denialist camp, that’s…

    …not at all surprising, really. Yet more proof of the total emptiness of their “case.”

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    May 3, 2010

    Don’t you think that those about to enter graduate school or the job market will think twice about applying to a school in Virginia?

    Absolutely so. In the case of Virginia, there is an additional wrinkle: the National Science Foundation is physically located in Virginia (their mailing address: 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22230). They often recruit scientists for temporary visitor positions (typically 1-2 years). It might be harder for the Virginia AG to invent a reason to go after an NSF person rather than a professor at one of the state universities, but I doubt it’s impossible, especially when the AG is someone as legally, um, creative as Cuccinelli.

    The NSF, of course, is probably one of Mann’s primary funding sources.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    May 3, 2010

    Raging Bee @7: I wouldn’t say the two cases are unrelated, because Mann was featured prominently in the purloined e-mails from CRU. His current employer, Penn State, has already conducted an investigation which concluded that there was no there there.

    Other than that, you pretty much have it.

  10. #10 AnotherBird
    May 4, 2010

    Ken Cuccinell is just pushing another conspiracy theory, nothing more nothing less. It is really frustrating hearing various arguments against climate change. The reason is that it just seems a denial that humans industrial activities have a negative impact on the environment. This isn’t to say that we should instantly stop our activities, but to be serious about finding alternatives to our current consumerism vehicles.

    This action by Ken Cuccinelli is more designed to cast doubt about human influence on CO2 in the environment. If access is granted to the emails and other communications, Cuccinelli should be required to depend on experts on the subject.

  11. #11 Lanny Buettner
    May 4, 2010

    During the election season in Virginia last year, attack ads were volleyed back and forth and most lamented the situation as irresponible muckracking. Since being elected, the governor has declared a month Confederacy history month and the AG as done this. It is looking like the Democrat ads may not have been muckracking after all.

  12. #12 Avi
    May 5, 2010

    Virginia has received $111,586,387 of NIH funding so far this year. That’s compared to about $1.2B for California (a heavy hitting biotech state) or $780M for New York (see NIH funding breakdown). Considering that Virginia houses about 2.5% of the US population (compared to 12% in California and 6.3% in New York) that’s a pretty low figure. Does that have anything to do with politics? Probably not. But Washinton’s recent stimulus package certainly has been good for funding basic science research

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