Can Attacking Scientists Be a Political Liability?

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | November 6, 2013, 8:00 am EDT
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Politicians attack scientists to score points with voters and their backers, whether it’s members of Congress attacking individual government grantees or belittling scientists whose research undermines their legislative priorities.  It got so bad that UCS put out a guide for scientists who find their work under an unusual amount of scrutiny (still a good idea to take a look before you’re in that situation).  But yesterday’s election in Virginia may showcase how these sorts of attacks can backfire, making a candidate look extreme and out of touch.

For those who haven’t followed the case, a recap: former University of Virginia scientist Michael Mann is responsible for pioneering climate change research that has since been reaffirmed by scores of researchers and scientific bodies. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli thought he knew better. He made headlines around the world by issuing subpoenas to UVa under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act for Mann’s personal emails and other documents (The scientist subsequently wrote a book about being raked over the coals by Cuccinelli and other politicians).

University of Virginia Rotunda

The University of Virginia spent more than $600,000 defending itself from its own attorney general–attacks that may have hurt the attorney general in the governor’s race. Check out a timeline of the attacks.

Many, including those who don’t accept mainstream climate science, called the attorney general’s inquest a witch hunt. The university took him to court and won all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court; various judges found not only that the university was not subject to the subpoenas but also that the attorney general had consistently failed to state what exactly he found false or fraudulent.

Then, Cuccinelli ran for governor. But UVa donors, and contributors to current Governor Bob McDonnell weren’t happy. “Among the McDonnell donors who have steered clear of Cuccinelli, four are current or former trustees of a Virginia public university, and two are active in promoting research on climate change,” reported the Washington Post on November 2. One donor, Mark Kingston, who gave $83,000 to current Governor Bob McDonnell’s campaign in 2009, told the Post he avoided Cuccinelli in part because of his actions related to climate change.

More recently, Cuccinelli seemed to recognize that the issue had become a liability for him, refusing several times to answer reporters’ questions about his understanding of climate change science (video here).

The campaign of governor-elect Terry McAuliffe had many issues on which it could focus, but chose to pounce upon the attorney general’s actions in an advertisement that I saw air many times in the Northern Virginia market:

“It’s been called Cuccinelli’s witch hunt,” says the ad. “Designed to intimidate and suppress…Ken Cuccinelli used taxpayer funds to investigate a UVa professor whose research on climate change Cuccinelli opposed. Cuccinelli, a climate change denier, forced the university to spend over half a million dollars defending itself against its own attorney general. Ken Cuccinelli. He’s focused on his own agenda. Not us.”

Other organizations, including a veterans group, went after Cuccinelli on climate change. Remarkably, even President Obama got in on the action on Monday. “It doesn’t create jobs when you go after scientists, and you try to offer your own alternative theories of how things work and engage in litigation around stuff that isn’t political,” said Obama at a campaign rally. “It has to do with what’s true. It has to do with facts. You don’t argue with facts.”

Just in case it’s not crystal clear, although we were critical of the attorney general while he was attacking UVa and its scientists, UCS did not comment on the election or make contact with any candidate. But after the fact, it’s interesting and encouraging to see donors shying away from politicians who go after scientists whose research results they find objectionable, and to see other politicians trying to hold them accountable.

Sometimes, attacking scientists is not good for science or the politicians who do the attacking.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , , ,

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  • Sandra Duffy

    As an Irish person I watched the attack on Professor Mann across the Atlantic with absolute disgust and disbelief at the time. Ken Cuccinelli and Virginia became infamous throughout the world wherever science is valued for the scurilous witch hunt. It is difficult to understand how such an abuse of power can occur with no legal retribution but it is at least a relief to see that political karma at least resulted. Hopefully Virginia now has a chance to mend it’s damaged reputation and support scientific endevours as they deserve.