Virginia Attorney General Demands Scientist's E-Mails
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The University of Virginia says it will fight a demand from the state's attorney general. He wants the school to turn over private e-mails and documents related to a former professor's climate research. The case has sparked a national debate over academic freedom.
From our member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.
SANDY HAUSMAN: Virginia's attorney general is a skeptic when it comes to global warming. So when e-mails sent by climate scientists were leaked to the media last year, Ken Cuccinelli took note. Critics thought the e-mails suggested deliberate manipulation of data. And one of the scientists, Michael Mann, was a professor at the University of Virginia until 2005. Since Mann was the recipient of public money for his research, Cuccinelli decided to investigate, and late last month demanded any documents or e-mails the university might have from Mann's time in Virginia.
Mr. KEN CUCCINELLI (Attorney General, Virginia): We have an obligation under the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act to police the use of state money. There's a half-million dollars that went into some of these grants, and the publicly available information at least leads us to ask the question of whether these grants were used for what they were requested for.
HAUSMAN: Cuccinelli made that statement to WSLS-TV in Roanoke. He declined to speak with NPR. Michael Mann did not respond to requests for an interview, but other scientists were anxious to talk.
Professor ANN HAMRIC (Chairwoman, Faculty Senate, University of Virginia): We believe this is a very chilling message from our state government.
HAUSMAN: That's Ann Hamric, a professor of nursing and chair of U.Va.'s faculty senate, which sent a letter to Cuccinelli urging him to reconsider.
Prof. HAMRIC: Scientific debate is very well-established and very important, but it's not done through this kind of process. The way science has grown, it's very specialized and complicated. And we rely on peer review of people who understand what these things mean.
HAUSMAN: The case has sparked protest from scientists nationwide. And the Union of Concerned Scientists weighed in with a letter signed by more than 800 academics from Virginia.
Francesca Grifo is the group's director of scientific integrity.
Dr. FRANCESCA GRIFO (Director, Scientific Integrity, Union of Concerned Scientists): It seemed clear to us right away that this was an attempt to harass a good scientist for political reasons.
HAUSMAN: Grifo says the public may have doubted Mann, but the scientific community has since expressed confidence in his work.
Dr. GRIFO: He's been cleared by the National Academy of Sciences, by Penn State, by the British House of Commons. How many times do we need to clear him before we can move on?
HAUSMAN: At least once more, says Chris Horner, a critic of global warming science and senior fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Mr. CHRIS HORNER (Senior Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute): I just dont know how we can selectively say, well, the attorney general doesnt have my training, he probably ought not look into this, but that other fellow over there, well, he's subject to the law. If Dr. Mann's field is so complex that civil enforcement and compliance mechanisms simply dont apply or can't be applied credibly, then he's in the wrong field in choosing to rely on the taxpayer for revenue.
HAUSMAN: The university has gone to court, asking that the attorney general's order be set aside to protect academic freedom.
U.Va. law Professor Richard Shragger is pleased that his employer plans to fight.
Professor RICHARD SHRAGGER (University of Virginia School of Law): We dont want government politicizing the production of knowledge in the university or at any level of education. Once they start to do that, through threats of prosecution or threats of civil liability, they can start to dictate what goes on in the university.
HAUSMAN: He believes the university will prevail since a Supreme Court ruling from the '50s, Sweezy versus New Hampshire, extends special protection to academia.
For NPR News, Im Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia.