Thursday, May 20, 2010

Let scientists be scientists -- May 20, 2010 column


To try to keep scientific research free of politicians’ whims, the National Science Foundation is an independent government agency, not an arm of the White House. By design, NSF’s director has a six-year term that does not coincide with presidential election years.

Now celebrating its 60th anniversary, NSF has supported science and engineering research that has yielded innovations ranging from American Sign Language to magnetic resonance imagery and cloud computing. NSF grants have helped 187 Nobel Prize winners.

Of course, no entity that relies on elected officials could ever be free of political shenanigans. Two recent anti-science episodes are reminders that we should vote carefully.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are playing games with reauthorization of the America COMPETES law, which funds NSF and science programs in other departments. House Republicans derailed the bill May 13 by forcing a vote on an anti-porn measure attached to the bill. Democrats were faced with either voting against punishing federal workers who view porn on the job or for funding science at the full, $85 billion level.

Scared Democrats voted for the anti-porn provision, prompting the House leadership to pull the bill. On Wednesday, a second attempt to pass the bill failed, even though Democrats had agreed to the anti-porn measure and to curtail the reauthorization period to three years instead of five, slashing its costs.

Such election-year posturing is mild mischief compared with what’s happening across the Potomac.

In Virginia, a scientist’s ethics and motives are under attack. Among the researchers NSF has supported over the years is Dr. Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University who formerly was on the University of Virginia faculty.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who does not believe human activity causes climate change, is using the power of the state to investigate whether Mann used fraudulent data in seeking grants and conducting his research into climate change.

Cuccinelli is following up on “climate-gate.” Last November, hackers broke into the electronic files of the Climatic Research Center in England and posted private e-mails from scientists engaged in research, including Mann. Some e-mails scorned climate-change skeptics and others were frank discussions about global warming research.

Critics said the e-mails proved that the scientists were cooking their data to make it appear that humans were responsible for global warming. The scientists said the messages were taken out of context and were just honest exchanges.

Faking data is an extremely serious charge, and the British House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, Penn State and other scientific groups have looked into “climate-gate.” All have exonerated the scientists, including Mann. The findings from these and other investigations of Mann over the years have failed to satisfy critics; they always claim a whitewash.

To go after Mann, Cuccinelli is using a state law aimed at cracking down on contractors who provide false invoices to bilk the state. He has issued the equivalent of a subpoena, asking the University of Virginia to turn over a huge collection of Mann’s e-mails, notes and other documents relating to five grants he had there from 1999 to 2005. Two were NSF grants, two were from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one was a university Excellence in Science and Technology grant.

The university has engaged legal counsel. An array of prestigious, national scientific groups and more than 800 scientists and academics in Virginia have written Cuccinelli to protest his fishing expedition.

To be more than fair to politicians, part of the problem may be a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The Union of Concerned Scientists has explained that, “Any individual e-mail discussion or scientific paper may legitimately contain speculations or arguments that later turn out to be false. This is completely routine and should not be taken as evidence of fraud, much less evidence against climate change.”

So far, Cuccinelli has dug in his heels. In a statement Wednesday on the Mann matter, Cuccinelli declared, “This is about rooting out possible fraud and not about infringing upon academic freedom.” The university has until July 26 to turn over Mann’s notes and e-mails.

Sixty years ago, politicians had the wisdom to set science apart from politics. Now more than ever, politicians should set politics apart from science -- and let scientists be scientists.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. If the Attorney General of Virginia is on a witch-hunt in re Prof Mann's possible fraud, we will know when UVa has furnished the requested data and Cuccinelli fails to find anything wrong. On the other hand, if wrong doing is discovered and prosecuted the VA AG will be vindicated. Why not let the investingation of possible fraud proceed? Thank you Ms Mercer for presenting a fair and balanced overview of the situation. Excellent public service.

  2. It is expensive and time consuming t o answer baseless charges, even if one wins. On the other hand, we do not want fraud to go unpunished. Academic freedom has its limits, UVa should give the AG the info he requested. Another thought provoking article by Ms. Mercer.