Political Pollutant 

Part payback, part witch hunt, Ken Cuccinelli's University of Virginia probe could have a chilling effect on higher education.

On what Wahoos grandly called “the grounds,” Clark Hall is a handsome, 1932 brick structure that used to house the University of Virginia law school. Now the center for environmental studies and a library, the Charlottesville building has become something else — the epicenter for a bitter political fight over the science of global warming.

The battle has escalated dramatically after the state's fiery right-wing attorney general, Kenneth N. Cuccinelli Jr., issued “civil investigative demands” regarding five federal and state grants at U.Va. His prime target is Michael E. Mann, a climatologist who trained at Yale University and the University of California at Berkeley and taught in Charlottesville from 1999 to 2005. He developed the hockey-stick theory of rising global temperatures occurring during the past century.

Now at Pennsylvania State University, Mann and his theory have greatly influenced international scientific thinking about global warming because it tends to show that human activity heats up the climate.

Many conservatives who believe otherwise are dead set against the hockey-stick theory. In what many academics charge is an extreme violation of academic freedom, Cuccinelli is acting as the tip of conservatives' spear by demanding copies of all papers regarding the grants, totaling about $500,000, and related correspondence, including e-mails and scraps of notepaper from 39 global scientists who corresponded with Mann during a period of several years.

In a statement, Cuccinelli's spokesman says “the revelations of Climate-gate indicate that some climate data may have been deliberately manipulated to arrive at pre-set conclusions. The use of manipulated data to apply for taxpayer-funded research grants in Virginia is potentially fraud. Given this, the only prudent thing to do was to look into it.”

Cuccinelli may have political payback on his mind. Mr. Jefferson's university has been a hotbed of global warming controversies that predate Mann and are played out regularly by such conservative opinion-molders as the Heartland and Cato institutes, Fox News and radio mogul Rush Limbaugh.

The same department in which Mann worked was headed by Austria-born S. Fred Singer from 1971 to 1994. In recent years, Singer has become an outspoken opponent of global warming theories, arguing that rising temperatures are a natural phenomenon. What's more, Patrick Michaels, another U.Va. scientist who questioned global warming, left the school in 2006 after his position as state climatologist was eliminated by former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. Michaels now works at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

The Michaels situation shows that those favoring theories that pin humans as the cause for dangerous global warming have muscled in on science, says Dr. Charles G. Battig, a retired anesthesiologist and Republican campaign contributor who lives near Charlottesville. He's a member the Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment, a group run by Singer. It's part of a national network of conservatives who challenge global-warming theories and attempt to regulate alleged causes of it, such as carbon dioxide.

“Nobody ever gets to question Al Gore,” says Battig, referring to the former Democratic vice president who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for warning of the dangers of global warming.

What's more, Mann and others at U.Va. are scratching their heads about why Cuccinelli chose to target some of the grants. Money for one of them comes from an internal university fund designed to hone the skills of early career researchers. It involves $214,700 to study the “dynamics of how the atmosphere, land, surface and vegetation interact,” Mann told Style Weekly in an e-mail. A co-investigator of the study, U.Va. Associate Professor Howie Epstein, says that it “wasn't climate change research” and that most of the funds were used “for field work in Botswana.”

It doesn't appear, say some, that the attorney general's office has thoroughly studied the five grants.

If so, Cuccinelli may have launched an expensive and potentially destructive fishing trip for political gain, some believe. University officials haven't commented on how much it will cost to track down the correspondence of 40 scientists, but plan to cooperate. The university, granted an extension by the attorney general's office, has until July 26 to comply.

As he did with a March opinion that public universities in the state can't protect gays through antidiscrimination policy, Cuccinelli has touched off a national controversy over Virginia schools. University groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Association of University Professors, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, vehemently oppose his probes.

The groups say his most recent action is a dangerous throwback to the early 1950s, when professors were tossed out of work if they ran afoul of the anti-Communist views of reactionary U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“Academic freedom is supposed to keep you free of things you saw in the McCarthy era,” says Patricia W. Cummins, a professor of French and international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who is also president of the Virginia conference of the AAUP. John Curtis, that association's director of public policy in Washington, says Cuccinelli's act “could make scientists around the globe think twice about working with scientists in Virginia.”

Cuccinelli's thrust against Mann is another in a campaign to challenge what he personally considers to be bogus theories that have been vetted by scientists globally and are supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, known as the IPCC, which is part of the United Nations. Cuccinelli has also sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which declared carbon dioxide - believed to be a component of greenhouse gases that cause global warming - as a pollutant.

He's also taken great note of a flap involving the University of East Anglia, a British school that coordinates IPCC research, which involves e-mails and alleged admissions that scientific research was mishandled. The IPCC has admitted that researchers misinterpreted data to say that some glaciers are melting faster than they really are, but that in general their research and analysis are accurate.

According to Cuccinelli and other conservatives, Mann was implicated in the East Anglia controversy. His hockey-stick theory was tarnished in the process and he's been the target of several university probes. Mann retorts that “my work has been repeatedly vindicated and the key conclusions of my research have been replicated and confirmed.”

Even more troubling, academics say, the subpoena-filled probe poisons the atmosphere in academia in which the give and take of competing views are considered a vital process that must be protected. Academic freedom, advocates such as VCU's Cummins say, gives faculty, students and researchers vital protection to pursue whatever line of inquiry they think has merit.

The question remains: Should academic vetting be done by qualified scientists or by an elected attorney general with a clear political agenda?


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