Virginia's recently elected attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has his hand in just about every divisive issue of the day. He is leading his own charge against the constitutionality of the health care bill, he is suing the Environmental Protection Agency to block it from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and he is tussling with state universities over whether they can bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But the local fight with potentially the broadest reach is the one Cuccinelli has picked against a single scholar — Penn State climatologist Michael Mann.
Mann is the author of what's known in climate research circles as the "hockey stick graph" that charted rapidly rising temperatures in the 20th century. He came to wider attention last November as one of the researchers at the heart of the "climategate" e-mail controversy.
Critics accused Mann and other scientists of manipulating data to portray a climate threat that doesn't really exist. Their research, though, has since been cleared by Penn State, as well as the University of East Anglia, from which the disputed e-mails were originally stolen.
Cuccinelli, still a skeptic, is now investigating Mann's 1999-2005 stint at the University of Virginia using an unlikely tool — the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. He wants to know if Mann defrauded taxpayers in search of grant money for his research, and last month he served the university with an extensive "Civil Investigative Demand" for documents.
The case touches off a number of unsettling issues around academic freedom, scientific integrity and the role of politics in research. And it has implications, academics worry, not just for scientists.
"The largest one is the precedent that it sets," said Francesca Grifo, who directs the scientific integrity program with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If he gets away with this, then there are ever so many fields, ever so many kinds of both ideologically and economically motivated harassment of this type that could rain down on scientists in any state."
UCS helped rally more than 800 academics and scientists in the state of Virginia to sign a letter last week urging Cuccinelli to drop the investigation. The board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has similarly weighed in, calling the attorney general's move an "apparently political action." Other letters appealing to Cuccinelli or supporting the university in its response have come from the UVA law school, the American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
Whether Cuccinelli abandons the case or not, many of these organizations fear it already has had a chilling effect and could deter scientists from work in politically controversial fields — or, more specifically, could deter work on climate change down the road in Virginia.
"If this thing goes through, if he keeps going, there's no way I'm going to want to be a climate scientist in the state of Virginia," said Amato Evan, an assistant professor in the environmental sciences department at UVA where Mann worked. "It just sounds like you're setting yourself up for some kind of trouble somewhere down the line."
He worries, too, about the meager explanation Cuccinelli has given for the inquiry. The attorney general has said he is investigating misuse of taxpayer dollars, not Mann's scientific conclusions, although the two appear inextricably linked.
"I can't figure out the motive other than to really position himself as a sweetheart of the Tea Party," Evan said. "As a scientist, I feel like who's next? Two, three years from now, when he wants to run as governor, if I'm doing really good work, if I'm very well known for the work that I keep doing on climate change, is he going to come and start harassing me, too, as a way of making himself more politically viable? For me, that's a huge concern."
Jeff Holt, an associate professor of neuroscience at UVA who also signed the UCS letter, sees Cuccinelli's investigation distorting the fundamental scientific process. Early hypotheses are often proven wrong or are later adjusted with new data through peer review — that's how science works. Research fraud does exist, but it's rooted out and discredited by other scientists.
"The idea that you have a criminal investigation into what would be normally a conventional academic process, a scientific process, seems very misplaced," Holt said.
Cuccinelli's foray where other scientific panels before him have already gone also raises the question of whether it's ever appropriate for politicians to assess the validity of technical research.
Mann's original grant proposals were likely vetted by more scientific expertise than exists in Cuccinelli's office, Evan said.
"It's not their job," Grifo added of politicians in general. "They have many important roles to play in the scientific enterprise."
Elected officials appropriate funds for science, for example, and confirm agency heads.
"But this is not one of them," Grifo said.