The “Cooch” and Academic Freedom

Of all of Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s bizarre initiatives, the one probing scientific research at the University of Virginia is the most frightening. It goes to the heart of academic freedom issues and conjures up some very ugly moments in American history.
Cuccinelli’s target is Michael E. Mann, a former U.Va. climatologist now at Penn State University which is well-regarded for its study of the climate and meteorology. “The Cooch” is targeting five grants worth about $500,000 that Mann was involved with before he left Charlottesville in 2005. Cuccinelli also wants copies of all communication, including emails, scratch paper notes, whatever, between Mann and 39 other scientists around the globe.
This latest round of wing-nuttery comes after Cuccunelli has sued the U.S. EPA for declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant, told public universities they can’t protect homosexual employees, says it’s OK if a rural prosecutor wants to rummage through a student newspapers files and so on.
Mann is a target for Cuccinelli because he espouses the so-called “hockey stick” theory that due to human activity, global temperatures have spiked upwards in the past 100 years or so. Never mind that worldwide scientific groups see merit in Mann’s theory, it runs afoul of the conservative cognoscenti, including the National Review, American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, Rush Limbaugh, James A. Bacon and a host of others.
So, Cuccinelli has turned to a law intended to see if academic researchers are skimming funds from their grants. He has issued “civil investigative demands,” which operate much like criminal subpoenas, for all information related to the grants and attendant communication.
Instead of looking for financial cheating, Cuccinelli is looking for heretics. His move is reminiscent of the church putting Galileo under house arrest for saying the planets move around the sun instead of the earth.
True, Clark Hall, the UVA center for environmental studies, has been a hotbed of global warming controversy for years. The attractive, 78-year-old brick building “on grounds’ as Wahoos like to say, was home for S. Fred Singer, the head of environmental studies who later became an outspoken opponent of global warming theories and is now an occasional speaker for right-wing talk shows.
Later, Patrick Michaels, another UVA professor skeptical of global warming theories, drew controversy when Gov. Tim Kaine did away with his “state climatologist” job in 2006 because Kaine, a Democrat, tends to support ideas that global warming is a big problem. Conservatives and libertarians are quick to point out Kaine’s action as interference in academia.
True, there may be an element of political payback in Cuccinelli’s hounding of Mann. But there’s a big difference between Kaine’s deal and Cuccinelli’s. For one thing, the post of “state climatologist” was a largely honorary position that hadn’t been funded for years. It originated back in the years when it was a common practice for politicians in Richmond to toss out honorary titles like bagatelles. Kaine expressed his dislike for Michael’s view by saying he did not speak for the state government and ending the honorary position. This is akin to a new governor tossing out holdovers and putting in his or her own people.
That’s a big difference from what Cuccinelli is doing. He is going specifically after scientific research by attaching highly political tags to it and then running up big bills and harassment levels because he doesn’t like what the research says.
Universities usually have sophisticated systems of peer review to vet both grant proposals and the research they provide. Mann told me in an email that his research was so vetted by such bodies as the National Academy of Sciences and other bodies. He has been under reviews at U.Va. and at Penn State and has always come out vindicated, he says.
Another big question is why Cuccinelli chose these specific five grants. Mann and another U.Va. scientist told me that one such grant worth about $200,000 has nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. It is meant to help train graduate student scientists in micro-climate conditions in places such as North Alaska and the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. Part of the funds were used to fund field work in Botswana.
It will indeed be interesting if Cuccinelli and his staff find a smoking gun in Botswana. But more likely is that they really don’t know anything about these five grants and are using the “CIDs” as a rather expensive way to get the “Cooch” publicity and attention among his cabal of right wing global warming naysayers.
He has sure stirred the pot on this one. Groups such as the American Association of University Professors, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Civil Liberties Union have all weighed in saying that Cuccinelli’s act is an appalling violation of academic freedom.
Some say it smacks of “McCarthyism,” referring to the alcoholic and reactionary Wisconsin senator who ruined scores of academic careers by claiming professors were influenced by Communists at the dawn of the Cold War. McCarthy didn’t have much to stand on. At one speech in West Virginia he claimed to have in his hand the names of several hundred Communist sympathizers who worked for the State Department. It turned out that he didn’t have one name. The sad thing is that no one in the news media had the sense, or the guts, to ask.
In a figurative sense, does Cuccinelli have any names? It doesn’t appear so, given the nature of the grants he’s dead set to investigate. He’ll get the Tweets and the headlines. But UVA will be stuck with the bill of researching documents to meet his “CIDs” and its reputation will be diminished.
Why would an honest researcher want to work with Virginia universities if his or her work is going to be challenged by the likes of Cuccinelli and he or she will have to pay all of those lawyers fees to fund the Grand Inquisitor’s witch hunts through their emails?
Researchers and venerable institutions might well chose to go elsewhere rather than have to deal with “the Cooch.”
Peter Galuszka

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7 responses to “The “Cooch” and Academic Freedom”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Cucinelli is becoming the new McCarty

  2. Mimi Stratton Avatar
    Mimi Stratton

    He's a grandstander. Me! Me! Me!

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Why is not a careful read of the House of Lords study enough to clarify the issues.

    There is a hocky stick on every graph of human existance and activitiy. How can that be a ligitimate concern?


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    There is a hocky stick on every graph of human existance and activity. How can that be a ligitimate concern?

    You mean like economic development, or flight miles?

  5. The Donkey Avatar
    The Donkey

    The Virginia statute that authorizes Cooch to make Civil Investigative Demands also allows UVA to contest them.

    It would be a travesty of the first order if UVA just lies down in the face of a direct assault on academic freedom.

    Lets hope the part of the AG's office that is supposed to be advising UVA about how to respond has thoroughly apprised UVA of its rights.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Get real people! This has nothing to do with academic freedom and everything to do with fraudulent use of state funds. If Cuccinelli finds evidence that Mann misused funds by falsifying his findings, Mann deserves what he gets. After all, science should be able to stand on its merits. If this proves out, Mann has nothing to worry about.

  7. You DO know that UVA professors are State employees, right? That means that every work product, every artifact of their work as State employees, belongs to the State.

    Considering how important this work is — billions of dollars will be taken from people to pay for global warming prevention — does it not follow that all such information should be made public?

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