Climategate-inspired fraud probe kicks up storm

May 20, 2010

A row over academic freedom has broken out in the US over a state attorney general's demands that a university release documents relating to research-grant applications.

Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia, issued a "civil investigative demand" to the University of Virginia last month demanding documents relating to grants obtained by climate scientist Michael Mann.

Mr Cuccinelli is investigating possible violations of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act in relation to five research grants obtained by Professor Mann, who left Virginia in 2005 and is now based at Pennsylvania State University.

In defence of the move, Brian Gottstein, Mr Cuccinelli's spokesman, cited the controversy caused by the distribution of documents that were leaked or stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia last year.

"Climategate indicates that some climate data may have been deliberately manipulated to arrive at pre-set conclusions," he said.

"The use of manipulated data to apply for taxpayer-funded research grants in Virginia is potentially fraud. The only prudent thing to do was to look into it."

In February, Mr Cuccinelli sought judicial review of the US Environmental Protection Agency's finding that greenhouse-gas emissions pose a threat to public welfare.

Rachel Levinson Waldman, senior counsel at the American Association of University Professors, accused Mr Cuccinelli of attacking 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". The university is considering its options.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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