There’s not much point for me to rerun this article, though I got permission earlier in the day, given that Joe has it and David has it. I figure an article with three URLs is going to get seen almost as much as one with four. But it’s important and I urge you to follow one of the links.
This week, in a courtroom in Prince William County, Virginia, a hearing will take place that could have implications for the privacy rights of scientists at colleges and universities across the country.
It’s part of a lawsuit brought by the American Tradition Institute, a free-market think tank that wants the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud. Filed against the University of Virginia, the suit seeks emails and other documents related to former professor Michael Mann, an award-winning climate scientist who has become a focus of the climate-denial movement because of his research documenting the recent spike in earth’s temperature.
By suing the university, the American Tradition Institute wants to make public Mann’s correspondence in an effort to find out whether he manipulated data to receive government grants, a violation of the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.
But a Facing South investigation has found that the Colorado-based American Tradition Institute is part of a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation. Our investigation also finds that ATI has connections with the Koch brothers, Art Pope and other conservative donors seeking to expand their political influence.
This is important not just because of the specific network of people acting to malign Mike Mann. Nor, despite my immense sympathy for him as an a innocent victim of persistent calumny, is it important mostly because of Mike Mann, his work, or his subdiscipline, although these things are worthy of note in themselves.
The crucial importance of all this is the violation of the social contract that attracts people into science in the first place. The deal is simple: you find yourself smarter than the average, and you have the choice of taking risks and trying to compete in commerce, or being risk averse and being more or less guaranteed of a comfortable life and a pursuit of your own personal interest in exchange for production of some social utility in teaching and managing the scientific collective.
When a country starts treating its scientists as if they were politicians, mistrusting everything they say and digging into every detail of their conduct, when the academy is no longer trusted to maintain its own boundaries, the contract breaks down. It simply isn’t worth it. There were always drawbacks to the trade, and they have been getting worse. Funding is tighter, more overhead goes into competing for grants, administrations are lawyer-infested and spooked and absurdly bureaucratic, students are unappreciative and increasingly ill-prepared, time for peer-review saps your energy and lack of it saps the capacities of those reviewing your work and your grants, and so on. So the deal has not been getting better.
But now the young person contemplating a life in science finds a risk that district attorneys and senators’ offices and a whole contentious subculture are on your case, stealing your correspondence and deliberately misrepresenting what it means, exaggerating your flaws and concealing your merits and dragging your name through the mud in national media. That is, the tradeoff, of limited wealth but a safe and fulfilling life, is ruined. There is no safety, in case what you discover is found inconvenient to some political stripe.
Politicians of all stripes say they value the capacities of the society in terms of science and technology. Yet, they raise the stakes in this ridiculous way. It seems grossly unfair to encourage young people to pursue a scientific career under the circumstances. The absurdity of cutting the budgets by a half dollar per capita, ultimately displacing a few thousand grad students for no good reason, just adds insult to injury, and ices the cake.
Young scientists have a great deal of international mobility. If your career is just starting, you may wish to seek to avoid the sort of country where this sort of thing is likely to happen.
UPDATE: Please see also the compelling summary of the Mann story by Shawn Otto at Huffington’s. Nature also has a <a href=”http://blogs.nature.com/news/2011/11/climate_scientist_wins_his_day.html”>thorough account</a>.