Friction between scientists and politicians isn’t new. Sparks fly over evolution, stem cells, climate change and other issues.
Now, though, the rhetoric is unusually hot. And a court battle is underway in the state of Virginia.
More than 200 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences — including a University of Minnesota professor — took the unusual step of publishing an open letter in Science magazine last month, saying they are “deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.”
Climate scientists may have made mistakes, the letter says, pointing out that the scientific process is not an exercise in certainty. But nothing has emerged to challenge fundamental conclusions that the planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere, the letter says, and “most of the increase in concentrations of those gases over the last century is due to human activities.”
The U of M scientist listed among the signatories is Regents’ Prof. Emeritus Margaret B. Davis, an expert in old-growth forests. She could not be reached for comment earlier this week.
The letter doesn’t name names. Instead, it issues a general call “for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”
The unnamed name that comes to mind, of course, is that of Virginia Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli II. In April, the Republican A.G. launched an investigation of global warming researcher Michael Mann under a state law designed to catch government employees defrauding the public out of tax dollars, the Washington Post reported.
“Cuccinelli, a vocal skeptic of global warming who is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over the issue, has said he is investigating whether Mann committed fraud by knowingly skewing data as he sought publicly funded grants for his research,” the Post said.
But it added that “Cuccinelli has repeatedly denied that he is targeting Mann’s work because of his scientific findings.”
Scientists and academics were not reassured. More than 800 of them from universities and colleges throughout Virginia signed a letter urging Cuccinelli to rescind his subpoena for papers and email related to research Mann conducted at the University of Virginia before he left there in 2005.
“Research shows that scientific discovery is held back when government officials harass scientists,” the letter said.
And last week, the University of Virginia went to court to fight Cuccinelli’s subpoena. It argued that his request exceeds his authority under state law and intrudes on the rights of professors to pursue academic inquiry free from political pressure, the Post reported.
Mann, who now works at Pennsylvania State University, is best known for his “hockey-stick” graph (so named because of its shape) showing temperature trends over the millennia based on tree rings, ice cores, corals and other indicators.
The graph’s depiction of a recent temperature spike has made Mann a favorite target of global-warming skeptics. The criticism intensified after he was implicated in the so-called “Climategate” affair. Among the emails leaked last year from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK one referred to his using a statistical “trick.”
Penn State investigated and concluded there is no credible evidence that Mann ever suppressed or falsified data. The so-called “trick” was not used to manipulate or falsify data but instead was a legitimate technique needed “to construct an understandable graph for those for those who were not experts in the field,” the report said.
Still, the warming skeptics were not satisfied. And scientists have yet to invent a shield against the polarized politics that characterize these times.