By Irtaza Ali
Professor Michael Mann, a scholar at Penn State, is at the center of a case that concerns research he conducted on global warming while teaching at the University of Virginia. Professor Mann comes from the school of thought that believes humans are responsible for global warming. Many believe that zealous scientists, like Mann, have been distorting data to support their conclusions. These allegations have resulted in multiple requests to review Mann’s research in the Prince William County Circuit Court in Mannasas, Virginia.
The issue began in 2010 when, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made a civil investigative demand requesting that the University of Virginia turn over research conducted by Mann during his employment at the institution. Cuccinelli believed that Mann had deceived taxpayers when requesting grants for his research by modifying his data to promote his theory. He is therefore at the forefront of an ongoing debate among global warming skeptics who believe scientists have been publishing skewed data to confirm the relationship between human activity and global warming.
The civil investigative demand asked for Mann’s research documents as well as his email correspondences. It was filed under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, which forbids “employees from making false claims for payment, submitting false records for payment or conspiring to defraud the state.” If he had been found guilty, Mann would have had to return his grant money and pay a fine. However, four months after making the demand, the judge ruled in favor of Mann, stating that Cuccinelli had failed to provide an “objective reason” as to why he believes Mann made fraudulent claims.
After the Cuccinelli demand was quashed, the American Traditions Institute filed a request to the University of Virginia under the state’s Freedom of Information Act for Mann’s research and email correspondences. The American Traditions Institute, now called The Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E), “is an organization engaged in strategic litigation, policy research, and public education on important energy and environmental issues. Primarily through its strategic litigation efforts, E&E Legal seeks to address and correct onerous federal and state governmental activities that negatively impact energy and the environment.” Like Cuccinelli, E&E hoped to prove that Mann had been making fraudulent claims. The request, however, was not made on time, and E&E, along with Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall, filed a lawsuit against UVA in the Prince William County Courts.
Judge Paul Sheridan was tasked with determining whether UVA would have to release the documents. In September 2012, he made an oral ruling in favor of UVA. In April 2013, Sheridan ordered that, although as a state employee Mann’s emails were public record during his time at UVA, he was exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.
In a remarkable turn of events late last month, the Virginia Supreme Court took up the case after E&E appealed. (Notably, the Virginia Supreme Court takes up only 10% of circuit court appeals.) Given that UVA has successfully obviated releasing the documents on two occasions, this proves an interesting development.
This case has a number of implications for higher education because it will set the precedent for what kind of information research universities have to make public. It will discuss the importance of providing scientists a safe space in which they can conduct their research and how academic integrity is to be maintained. Indeed, this circuit court case looks poised to make waves in the Virginia Supreme Court.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Andrea Zeppilli