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Attorney General’s Risky Climate Science Investigation

The fallout from the so-called ‘climategate‘ email affair has metastasized yet again, this time into a highly controversial investigation by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who is examining the research practices of a former University of Virginia climate scientist. The civil investigation seeks to determine whether Michael Mann, a prominent specialist in the planet’s climate history who now directs the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University, violated Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Actwhen he conducted research financed by the state of Virginia prior to leaving the faculty in 2005.

Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia Attorney General.

Mann has correctly labeled the investigation a “witch hunt,” and even ardent climate science skeptics have condemned Cuccinelli’s actions, as noted by Andrew Revkin on DotEarth last week.

According to the civil investigative demand (CID), which is similar to a subpoena, Cuccinelli’s investigation “relates to data and other materials that Dr. Mann presented in seeking awards/grants funded, in whole or in part, by the Commonwealth of Virginia or any of its agencies as well as data, materials and communications that Dr. Mann created, presented or made in connection with or related to” five separate grants. Interestingly, most of the grants were funded mainly by the federal government, not the state of Virginia.

The investigation also seeks all correspondence between Mann and a list of about 40 climate scientists, several of whom had their emails stolen in the climategate dustup. The list includes Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in Britain, Gavin Schmidt of NASA and the realclimate blog, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., as well as well-known climate skeptic Steve McIntyre, a longtime critic of Mann’s work.

Mann specializes in paleoclimatology and has written numerous studies on the earth’s climate history. His reconstruction of climate change during the past 1,000 years became one of the most controversial climate science charts in history when it was included in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Third Assessment Report in 2001. It showed a highly unusual and sharp increase in temperature during the latter part of the 20th century, and was cited as evidence that human activities are significantly altering the climate. The chart was dubbed the Hockey Stick, since the temperature increase resembles the blade on a hockey stick.

Due to persistent questions about that study, a National Research Council panel examined its methods in 2006, and found no major flaws. In the wake of climategate, Mann has been investigated by his current academic institution, which has essentially cleared him of wrongdoing, although part of the investigation is still ongoing.

Cuccinelli’s investigation has the potential to dramatically curb scientific research at U. Va. and elsewhere. If scientists fear they will be investigated if the attorney general dislikes their research results (Cuccinelli is known to be skeptical of the widely held scientific view that human activities are warming the climate), they may refrain from conducting potentially controversial research.

It’s extremely difficult to read the CID as anything other than an assault on climate science research, and to a broader degree, on scientific research in general. For example, if Cuccinelli’s investigation were truly about whether Mann improperly used grant funding, why would the CID include a list of scientists, several of whom were swept up in ‘climategate’, and several (such as McIntyre) who did not work on the grants at all?

Couldn’t this really be about trying to unearth more fodder for climate science skeptics by revealing more of Mann’s emails?

There has been widespread criticism of Cuccinelli’s investigation, including from the Washington Post’s editorial board, which published a scathing editorialon May 6, saying that Cuccinelli “has declared war on the freedom of academic inquiry.”

“By equating controversial results with legal fraud, Mr. Cuccinelli demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom,” the editorial stated.

In an article in the Post yesterday, Cuccinelli was quoted as saying the investigation is not about Mann’s research results, but rather the way he spent state funds. “That subpoena is directed at the expenditure of dollars. Whether he does a good job, bad job or I don’t like the outcome — and I think everybody already knows his position on some of this is one that I question. But that is not what that’s about,” Cuccinelli said.

However, considering the costs to Virginia of pursuing the investigation, when compared to the grant funding in question, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote: “Spending half a million dollars of taxpayer funds to possibly recover some part of half a million dollars of misspent grant money doesn’t even begin to make sense.”

Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado whose correspondence with Mann is being sought under the CID, said the investigation is purely political, and is extremely unlikely to turn up any evidence of misconduct.

…Make no mistake, this is a fishing expedition pure and simple. The point of the “investigation” is not to recover Virginia funds that were misappropriated, as the law might suggest, but to go back to the Climategate well one more time to see if more embarrassing information or emails might be dredged up. And on this point, there are probably more embarrassing things in Mann’s emails and files. But given the attention he has received and the information already found in the East Anglia emails, it’d be a shock to find anything indicating research misconduct.

For more reaction to Cuccinelli’s investigation, see climate skeptic Tom Fuller’sopen letter to Cuccinelli, as well as articles from the Climate Progress blog and US News and World Report.

The Washington Post, 10 May 2010