Virginia Tech faculty and researchers have weighed in on another of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s recent forays into state university policies.
About 70 Tech faculty members, among almost 740 others from universities around the state, signed a letter sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which was sent to Cuccinelli on May 18. The letter expressed concerns over Cuccinelli’s current investigation into allegedly fraudulent research on global warming conducted by former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann and discouraged Cuccinelli from continuing the investigation.
“In the interests of the people of Virginia, we urge you to halt this burdensome and entirely unwarranted investigation,” the letter read.
In an effort to discover evidence to support the claim that Mann tampered with data to reach his conclusions about global warming, Cuccinelli’s office has requested numerous e-mail correspondence between Mann and various other researchers, as well as all other documents and information generated by Mann since 1998.
Cuccinelli served that request in the form of a civil investigative demand, which has essentially the same powers as a subpoena, to the rector and members of the UVa Board of Visitors on April 28.
The demand seeks to determine whether Mann engaged in fraudulent practices as defined by the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act during his research on global climate change, specifically pertaining to research for which he was awarded about $485,000 of state grant money.
The deadline for UVa to respond to the demand is today.
The letter from the Union of Concerned Scientists called the civil investigative demand “unfounded,” saying it “could undermine the effectiveness of not only climate scientists but also thousands of other Virginia researchers.”
“The freedom of scientists to openly disagree and discuss critical scientific topics has brought Virginia and the United States prosperity and global leadership in science,” the letter said. “Research shows that scientific discovery is held back when government officials harass scientists.”
Mann was an assistant professor at UVa between 1999 and 2005 when he moved to Penn State University. He has been at the forefront of research on climate change and global warming since the early 2000s. Among his notable research was the development of the “hockey stick graph,” which shows global temperature to have remained consistent until 1900, at which point a drastic increase occurs. Mann used paleontological evidence such as tree rings to support his conclusions.
Many Tech faculty members who do not work in the field of climate research and had not been closely following Mann’s work have nonetheless added their signatures to the letter of public support.
Ted Koebel, department chair of Tech’s urban affairs and planning program, signed the letter because he opposed Cuccinelli’s actions, calling them “politically motivated intrusions.”
“The whole thing is bogus,” Koebel said. “This is a step back toward the Dark Ages.”
Peter Kennelly, head of Tech’s biochemistry department, said he believes Cuccinelli’s actions are politically oriented, and the attorney general’s office is trying to send a signal to members of the state academic community.
“This isn’t about global warming or who’s right or wrong,” Kennelly said. “It’s about protecting the ability of scientists to work free of political intimidation. This is a slippery slope.”
Kennelly noted the mechanisms within universities and within the scientific process itself designed to discover whether a researcher’s findings are accurate.
“The nature of science is that other people following up will find inconsistencies,” he said. “Scientists are people, too, and we do stumble.”
Koebel said he did not have an opinion on whether Mann’s research was indeed factual, but he believes that university administration should be the party responsible for investigating research fraud.
“If the systems aren’t adequate for detecting and addressing fraud, they should be removed,” Koebel said. “This shouldn’t be a matter of the attorney general coming into the university.”