Climate Change FOIA Hypocrisy: Information About Climate Change Research Wants to Be Free


One hestitates again to dive into the noxious pool of science politics that surrounds the issue of climate change, but here goes. At the center of the latest contretemps is a fight over Freedom on Information Act requests involving research done by climate scientists. Specifically, Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) and lawyers for the American Tradition Institute have made FOIA requests for information on the grants, emails and other information about the research done by climatologist Michael Mann when he was at the University of Virginia. For the record, I came out a while back against misusing FOIA requests as a tool for prosecuting scientific "witch hunts."

More recently, the Washington Post editors high-mindedly opined,

FREEDOM OF information laws are critical tools that allow Americans to see what their leaders do on their behalf. But some global warming skeptics in Virginia are showing that even the best tools can be misused.

Lawyers from the Environmental Law Center at the American Tradition Institute (ATI) have asked the University of Virginia to turn over thousands of e-mails and other documents written by Michael E. Mann, a former U-Va. professor and a prominent climate scientist. Another warming skeptic, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), recently demanded many of the same documents to determine whether Mr. Mann somehow defrauded taxpayers when he obtained research grants to study global temperatures. …

Going after Mr. Mann only discourages the sort of scientific inquiry that, over time, sorts out fact from speculation, good science from bad. Academics must feel comfortable sharing research, disagreeing with colleagues and proposing conclusions — not all of which will be correct — without fear that those who dislike their findings will conduct invasive fishing expeditions in search of a pretext to discredit them. That give-and-take should be unhindered by how popular a professor's ideas are or whose ideological convictions might be hurt.

Teresa A. Sullivan, U-Va.'s president, said that the university will use "all available exemptions" from the state's public records law to shield Mr. Mann. And a university spokesperson said that U-Va. anticipates that most of the documents at issue will be exempt under a statute that "excludes from disclosure unpublished proprietary information produced or collected by faculty in the conduct of, or as a result of, study or research on scientific or scholarly issues." The university is right to make full use of such exemptions.

So there. In today's Post, the lawyer for ATI Christopher Horner responded, calling the Post's editorial "hypocritical." You be the judge:

…we take issue with the editorial's failure to acknowledge a critical point: It is customary among commonwealth universities to provide such records of academics, even the specific class of records we are seeking. For example, U-Va. began providing to Greenpeace records of former research professor Patrick Michaels, before Greenpeace suspended its request. And just this year George Mason University released correspondence of professor Edward Wegman regarding an already published paper, just as we seek former U-Va. assistant professor Michael Mann's correspondence relating to his publications. 

For the uninitiated, Mr. Michaels is a "skeptic." Mr. Wegman was involved in exposing Mr. Mann's statistical methods and problems with climate science's version of peer-review. So their records are somehow different. For The Post to acknowledge this disparate treatment would be to acknowledge that the law is on our side, that the exception sought here is unique to a favored individual, and that this expression of outrage in response to our request is therefore selective and hypocritical. 

Looking into the matter, one finds that U.Va. was indeed responsive to Greenpeace's FOIA requests for access to Michaels' correspondence. In a letter dated January 27, 2010, the academic bureaucrat in charge of FOIA requests did inform Greenpeace that U.Va. could not give "unfiltered" records, but for a fee the University would be willing to check through Michaels'

"'letters, … faxes, reports, meeting and teleconference agendas, minutes, notes, transcripts, tape recordings and phone logs' relating to global climate change…."

Greenpeace apparently dropped the request when it discovered how much it would cost (more than $4,000). However, the University did send "a list of grants in support research, which we can provide free of charge," along with Michaels' CV. The University appears to be much less willing to shield a climate change "denier" from FOIA requests than it is to protect a climate change "alarmist" from similar requests. (The terms are what each side calls the other.)

What about the case of Wegman and George Mason University? Statistician Edward Wegman did an analysis that was highly critical of Michael Mann's statistical methods for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce back in 2006. That report's findings were highly contested. Enter a FOIA request from USA Today journalist Dan Vergano to GMU for information relating to Wegman's research. This how GMU responded:

In accordance with the Virginia Freedom of lnformation Act (§2.2-3700, et seq.) and per your request on October 21, 2010, for "information and documentary materials, including electronic mail and other communication, made by Dr. Edward J. Wegman and his associates, Yasmin J. Said and Walid Sharabati, in connection with I or related to the following grants":

1. National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism grant 1 F32 AA015876-01Al
2. Army Research Office contract W911NF-04-1-0447
3. Army Research Laboratory under contract W911NF-07-1-0059

As well as in connection with I or related to the following reports created by some or all of these authors at George Mason University:

1. Computational Statistics & Data Analysis 52 (2008) 2177 – 2184, Said, Y. et al
2. COMPST AT 2008 -Proceedings in Computational Statistics: 18th Symposium Held in Porto, Portugal,
2008 Wegman, E. et al, pp. 173-189

Please find the requested information as electronically copied on the enclosed CD.

At Virginia universities, there does seem to be some difference in how researchers are treated when it comes to FOIA requests depending on which side they stand in the climate change controversy.

But now the Wegman case gets really interesting. Because of the FOIA request in part, Vergano was able to uncover and report plagiarism in the Wegman report and subsequent peer-reviewed articles based on that report. In this case, a FOIA request may have contributed to revealing some research hanky-panky, which was severe enough that the journal that published the article has now retracted it.

So, it can be argued that the Wegman case cuts in favor of releasing Mann's records through FOIA since the folks going after those records believe that they, too, might well uncover research abuse.

Instead of engaging in FOIA battles which fuel conspiracy theories, the real solution is for publicly funded researchers to embrace research transparency, putting all their data and methods online for everyone to see.

Disclosure: I was graduated from the University of Virginia in 1975.