Thursday, November 21, 2013

Climate science lawyers up

Climate science lawyers up

More than 22,000 scientists will gather in San Francisco next month to discuss their work. The event's sponsor, the American Geophysical Union, this year is offering one-on-one legal counseling to help researchers defend against attacks on their work. Photo courtesy AGU.
Nov. 21, 2013

American Geophysical Union adds legal counseling to its Fall Meeting agenda, citing scientists' need to defend against increasing attacks on research, correspondence and public statements.

By Lindsey KonkelThe Daily Climate
Time for climate scientists to lawyer up? One of the world's premier science associations is offering the option.
Many scientists find themselves at the receiving end of attacks by groups who abuse open records laws to saddle scientists with vexatious and intimidating demands for personal emails and other materials.
- Michael Mann,
Penn State
The American Geophysical Union, representing more than 62,000 Earth, atmospheric and space scientists worldwide, has teamed with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to make lawyers available for confidential sessions with scientists at its annual meeting next month.
Legal counseling is not a typical agenda item for a science confab, but it's become an important one in today's political climate, scientists say.
The role of science in society is evolving, said AGU's executive director Chris McEntee. As society faces more conflict over natural disasters, natural resource use and climate change, scientists increasingly find themselves in the spotlight, forced to communicate findings in ways they haven't in the past. 
AGU AgendaOne-on-one litigation counseling, McEntee said, is "part of a broader suite of services to help our scientists communicate and interact with the broader world outside of science."

Avoiding naivety

It's an issue few researchers contemplate as they prepare for a career in science, said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York and founder of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.
"When you get your degrees in science, you have no understanding of how the legal system works," he said. Such naivety is often exploited to slow down the scientific process, he added, especially in controversial areas like climate research.
The Legal Defense Fund and AGU teamed up last year to test interest; 10 scientists signed up for counseling. Mandia expects "many more" this year.
Lawyers will be available seven hours a day for the first four days of AGU's massive five-day Fall Meeting, held every December in San Francisco and drawing 22,000 scientists to share and discuss their work.

Wrong message to young scientists?

While Mandia sees a need for scientists to get legal savvy, he also fears the message it sends to early-career scientists unprotected by tenure or institutions.
AGU-posters-500"Will young scientists shy away from controversial studies if they fear their work will constantly be under attack?" he asked.
Penn State climatologist Michael Mann has been at the receiving end of multiple legal challenges as the creator, more than a decade ago, of the now-famous "hockey stick" graph merging contemporary and prehistoric temperature records. 
There's no question to him of the value or need for legal knowledge.
"Many scientists in my field now find themselves at the receiving end of attacks by groups who abuse open records laws to saddle scientists with vexatious and intimidating demands for personal emails and other materials," he said in an email. "It is critical that they be informed about their legal rights and available recourse."
The AGU Fall Meeting starts Dec. 9.


  1. I write as a retired member of the AAAS an institutional member of the AGU.

    The problem is that scientists use other people's money to do research. And other people want to see that the results are not fraudulent.

    Academics now embrace "big science". This was one of the concerns of Thomas Kuhn that arose from his association with James Conant who had an interest in establishing a conceptual framework for science in the post WWII period.

    The problem was philosophical but neither Conant and Kuhn were philosophers.

    If you are doling out public money how do you determine who gets the money? Don't you give to scientists who produce important new results that will benefit the taxpayers? Or do you give to scientists to do pure research that reveals some fundamental law of nature?

    Kuhn was a science historian who claimed that truth in science was not the issue. What counts is what your peers have established as normal science. So long as you stay within the norms established by the leaders in your field then you qualify as a scientist in that field.

    Normal science is done by members of the consensus and if you break with the consensus you may or may not succeed in overturning the dominant paradigm. But you will no longer be a member in good standing in your field unless and until you overturn the paradigm by leading a new consensus. This approach makes the organization of science consistent with political democracy.

    Close oversight of science by the public seems to have been missed by Conant and a necessary aspect of financing science with public money. This also is a consistent with political democracy.

    Consider how closely public authorities monitors the science behind bringing new drugs and medical devices to market. While this aspect of medical science is financed by the private sector, the patent system is the public's entree to regulate the science. And scientific fraud in this area of science is severely punished.

    With climate science, the public has an entree based on the source of finance, taxation. A second entree arises from the propensity of climate scientists to participate as activists in the political process.

    The ancient doctrines of equity seem to be relevant, in particular the doctrine that for a claim in equity. In science equity would work as follows: a scientist who engages in political activism must have clean hands. A colleague who does not engage in political activism would be under no such obligation. This would seem to be consistent with political democracy.

    Clean hands for a scientist would obviously mean that the scientist must make his data available to the public and must make his methods transparent, including computer code. What is not so obvious is that a scientist must show that he/she has used acceptable statistical and mathematical analysis.

    Public authorities are particularly strict with the pharmaceutical sector. Perhaps such strictness should now be required of the climatology sector. Yes, you read that right. Climate-driven industry is now a major economic sector and will become greater in the future if the EPA has its way.

    My message to young scientists: don't ask taxpayers to fund your research. Use the internal resources of your own university. If that means you cannot do the research you want to do, then learn how to teach or get another job.

    Alternatively, get a book on auditing: study performance auditing as well as financial auditing. Develop data auditing. You may have to make friends with some engineers to learn how they do it.

    The bottom line is that this is no longer the 18th century nor even the 19th century when science was practiced by clergymen and the aristocracy. Learn how to behave like anyone else who uses other people's money.

    1. Thanks for your excellent comments, infinitely better advice than recommending scientists hire a lawyer.