Michael Mann v. Ken Cuccinelli: Is Academic Freedom a License to Lie?

Does “academic freedom” include the right to falsify data in government grant applications? One might think so, to hear Rachel Levinson Waldman, senior counsel for the American Association of University Professors. She (and 810 Virginia professors) have objected to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli’s civil investigative demand or “CID” (shown below) that the University of Virginia produce documents and communications relating to $485,000 in government funds it received on behalf of then UVA prof Michael Mann (of Climategate Hockey Stick fame) for the study of global warming theories.

CIDs are a powerful tool available to government investigators under the Federal False Claims Act and some state corollaries such as Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. The intent of these acts is to combat fraud in government contracting. Quoted in Times Higher Education UK, Levinson says Cucinelli’s CID is a politically-motivated assault on academic freedom:

“The breadth of the request suggests that it is meant to intimidate faculty members and discourage them from pursuing politically controversial work; it’s a shot across the bow,” she said.

“(This) injection of politics into the academic arena is … counter not only to the interests of scholars in climate science, but also to the interests of the state’s flagship institution in academic excellence.”

Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Virginia, warned that if the institution were to “roll over”, it “could chill university-based scientific inquiry”.

Is the breadth of the AG’s request that unrealistic? Seems to me that it should be easier for UVA to locate and produce all correspondence related to the grants than to have to sift through thousands of documents in search of a medium-sized subset. The language of the CID is quite specific. If UVA and Professor Mann have conducted themselves in a properly scientific fashion, the requested documents, despite their likely volume, should be easily accessed in electronic or hard copy format.

Isn’t it true that politics are first “injected” into science when scientists ask taxpayers to fund their “politically controversial work”? In fact, seems to me that the central question before the Attorney General is really the extent to which the grant funds were used for scientific inquiry versus political advocacy on behalf of the climate change lobby.

Surely, in exchange for the funds, Mann and UVA agreed that the taxpayers or their representatives could later demand documentation to ensure that the funds were properly spent. Is it really so outrageous, now that the motivations of Mann and his colleagues have been notoriously called into question, that the State of Virginia wants a closer look?

Can’t scientists who invite taxpayers into their labs by taking tax money minimize their political (and legal) troubles by telling the truth in their grant applications and keeping the kind of well-organized, verifiable scientific data that is the hallmark of real science? Or should taxpayers just learn to gracefully write off their hard-won dollars the moment they are “granted” to “scientists”? Doesn’t the question answer itself?

None of this is to say that Michael Mann has been found liable for fraud. That is the question Cucinelli is investigating. Having accepted taxpayer funds to support Mann’s research into global warming, should Mann and the University of Virginia be insulated from the mere inquiry by the taxpayers’ representatives into whether Mann and UVA told the truth to taxpayers about what they were going to do with that money? When an academic receives research funds on the basis of specific factual assertions made to the patrons of his research (in this case, the taxpayers) even AAUP must — for its own good — insist that those factual assertions be taken seriously. The alternative is the complete termination of taxpayer funding of research.

It seems fair to say that while academic freedom fills a crucial role in ordered democracy, it is a privilege rather than a right. It carries with it the obligation to pursue academic and scientific objectives, not political ones. It is precisely because of the perception that Professor Mann and his colleagues have disregarded this obligation in a coordinated attempt to affect policy that taxpayers have become suspicious. It is to resolve these suspicions one way or another that Virginia’s Attorney General has issued such a broad CID to UVA.