U-Va. admirably resists Mr. Cuccinelli's fishing expedition

Saturday, May 29, 2010

AFTER WEEKS of consideration, the University of Virginia has decided to fight Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II's dangerous, ideologically inflected investigation of Michael Mann, a climate scientist who used to work there. Since Mr. Cuccinelli (R) is, technically, the university's own lawyer, the decision to challenge his fishing expedition may have been awkward. But on the merits, it should have been easy.

That's because, first, the law is on the university's side. Mr. Cuccinelli claims to be investigating whether Mr. Mann defrauded Virginia taxpayers when he secured taxpayer-funded research grants to conduct studies on global temperatures.

Without explaining the exact nature of the fraud he suspects, the attorney general is ordering the university to spend untold amounts of money and manpower compiling and turning over a massive number of documents and correspondence related to Mr. Mann, including communications from and to other scientists. In so doing, Mr. Cuccinelli bends far beyond the breaking point a statute designed to combat things such as contractors submitting false invoices to the commonwealth for payment.

It's not just that Mr. Cuccinelli has presented no real evidence that Mr. Mann did anything "fraudulent" while conducting his research, applying for his grants or analyzing his data; in fact, Mr. Cuccinelli's targeting of Mr. Mann appears to be based on little more than a misreading of e-mails the scientist wrote. Multiple scientific review committees have examined Mr. Mann's work, and all have cleared the scientist of wrongdoing.

Academic inquiry is by its nature experimental; researchers will inevitably misinterpret data, draw conclusions that prove inaccurate and spend public money doing so. That does not mean they are defrauding the public. The remedy is more data and criticism from fellow experts, not civil penalties. If researchers at state institutions are unwilling to stick their necks out in case a state official dislikes their findings, scientific progress at the commonwealth's universities will screech to a halt, talented faculty will leave, and the best and brightest students will go elsewhere.

Mr. Cuccinelli could save his office and the University of Virginia a lot of wasted time and money if he ended his investigation now. If not, Virginia courts should have no trouble throwing it out for him.

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