Archive for May 2010

The End of Climate Science (and much more besides) in the Commonwealth of Virginia

May 2, 2010

Via Doug J, who got it from Thers, this report out of Virginia tells of the assault on (a) climate science and (b) academic freedom at the hands of Virginia’s new and very dangerous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

The report itself is a bit annoying — it refers to a “smoking gun” coming out of the so-called climategate emails, for example.

That would be the smoking gun widely trumpeted by denialist blots (I actually like that typo, as I look at it, though I do mean “blogs”), and credulously repeated by some in the traditional mediahat has so far failed to materialize in two actual reviews so far conducted into the affair.

But perhaps the most insidious implication of Cuccinelli’s demand for…

…any and all emailed or written correspondence between or relating to Mann and more than 40 climate scientists, documents supporting any of five applications for the $484,875 in grants, and evidence of any documents that no longer exist along with proof of why, when, and how they were destroyed or disappeared….

…is that I can’t see how this doesn’t ensure the Virginia’s public universities will be unable to recruit top talent not just to climate studies, but to anything that could be imagined to deviate from the proper political line.

Anyone good enough to attract any other offer would be nuts to accept a publicly funded research job in the Commonwealth:  who knows when every three a.m. frustrated email may yet serve to identify your disloyalty to the Soviet the Attorney General’s office, or the legislature, or the Guardians of the Faithful the Virginia Republican Party.

Seriously, no snark at all: science has certain norms. High, really chief among them, is the commitment to free enquiry.

The reason is, or should be obvious:  once you start telling folks which answers are acceptable and which are not, you’ve just told those scientists under your power that they can’t think without thinking first whether those thoughts are acceptable.

And another thing: Cuccinelli may think he’s just stuffing climate change back in a box where it belongs.  He may actually hope that hounding Mann may scare others off from daring to probe temperature records, or increasingly detailed global models or what have you.

He probably has, in fact, at least in VA.  As noted above why would any atmospheric scientist, any geologist any planetary scientist whatsoever want to risk the career trashing experience of a full-on state-sponsored attack on your work, your records, your colleagues and students — just the time, years perhaps, lost to demonstrating to the political officer the orthodoxy of your views would be intolerable.

But why stop there:  how much of biology falls afoul of one unshakable principle or another?  I’m not sure Ken Cuccinelli knows how much of molecular medicine turns on evolutionary biological ideas, but the researchers know, and they may well wonder what part of that work might suddenly fall afoul of the legislature or law enforcement.

The long and the short of it:  I know that if I were the department head of research departments at major universities, I’d be eyeing Virginia’s schools with a view to poaching top talent.  If I were a young scholar being recruited by Virginia, I’d look at all my other options — even if one imagined that the crazy would never envelope, say, a lab studying quantum dots, who wants the aggravation?  Who would want to work at a place where a fair number of your colleagues are cowering, hoping that the wrath of the AG never descends on them?

I believe the technical term is a chilling effect.

And above all, if I were an aspiring graduate student with chops — why on earth would I think of signing on to a place where I never could know if or when my lab would shudder under siege for years in some know-nothing’s crusade?

I love Virginia.  I’ve got some family down there; U. VA is one of the nation’s historical and architectural jewels; the place is beautiful and so on.

But none of that pays the rent, or creates the environment in which killer labs do great work (and, in many fields, spin off ideas that turn into companies and useful things that lead to the betterment of the human condition).

The impact of this latest nonsense won’t be felt all at once…and if the pushback is really vigorous, it may not be nearly as dire as I’m imagining it now.  But it doesn’t take that much to turn a first rate research institution into something much less impressive.  And Cuccinelli is sure doing his best to set that process in motion.

A parting thought: not to go all quasi Godwin on you, but for a more extreme example of what happens when you go down this road, you might find Loren Graham’s underappreciated book The Ghost of the Executed Engineer instructive.  It tells the story of the most significant victim of Stalin’s cleansing of the ranks of his engineers of any deviant thought.  After that job was done, the Soviet Union continued to turn out extraordinary numbers of academically trained engineers.  They just weren’t much good, most of them.  The consequences of being too good were too obvious.

Image:  Fra Angelico, St. Lawrence before Valerius, c. 1440