News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Defense Fund Helps Scientists Targeted by Lawsuits

The next time a climate scientist gets sued by a think tank, state attorney general, or fossil fuel industry front group, they’ll have a fund to tap into in order to support their defense. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund is now officially affiliated with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to aid environmental scientists.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund was created to give support to climate scientists when they find themselves under legal assault. Credit: s_falkow/flickr.

In recent years, an increasing number of lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests have been filed against prominent climate scientists, such as Pennsylvania State professor Michael Mann, seeking details about their email correspondence, funding, and research activities funded with taxpayer dollars. These lawsuits and information requests have taken climate scientists away from their labs and into the courtroom, and cost them thousands in legal fees. To date, none of efforts have turned up any evidence of wrongdoing.

Mann, for example, has been the target of a probe by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who has been seeking to determine whether he violated Virginia's Fraud Against Taxpayers Act while conducting state-funded research. Other researchers, including Gavin Schmidt of NASA, have also been the subjects of Freedom of Information requests to release certain email correspondence. Scientists have denounced such legal actions as fishing expeditions that set dangerous precedents for curtailing academic freedom.

The defense fund will be used for helping researchers defray their legal bills, educating researchers about their rights and responsibilities, and recruiting a cadre of lawyers to represent climate scientists.

“When individual researchers find themselves under intense legal assault, they often have few resources. Their universities do not necessarily represent their interests and may be disinclined to resist corporate fishing expeditions,” PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said in a press release.  

Scott Mandia of Suffolk County Community College in New York and Joshua Wolfe, a photographer who co-authored a book on climate change, spearhead the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Mandia began the fund in 2011, raising $25,000 to date.

Comments

By Hector M.
on January 25th, 2012

Why should scientists need to be defended from requests of information about their publicly funded work? If one accepts public funding, the resulting work should be subject to public scrutiny, I suppose: that is the purpose of Freedom of Information Acts across the world. Not so if one works with private funds, of course.

But even for privately funded research, where correspondence and the like may remain private, the higher interests of the integrity and progress of science demand that all data, code and materials are always published and archived (which is not always the case, unfortunately): otherwise results could not be tested or replicated, to the detriment of scientific progress.
In fact, scientists should fight not against those seeking information, but against any attempt by their institutions to keep their data or code under wraps: it is indeed in the interest of scientists to publish everything, lest somebody suspects something is amiss. Only research that survives criticism and scrutiny, and can be faithfully replicated, will survive in the end.

Reply to this comment

By Andrew
on January 25th, 2012

Hector,

The issue isn’t that FOIA requests are being filed. It’s that, according to many of the targets of these requests, they’re nuisance requests designed to harass scientists rather than get to the bottom of real problems. The open data movement is gaining steam within the scientific community. With this, though, there is still a difference between releasing datasets/codes/methods and releasing email correspondence, which is frequently what’s being sought in the legal requests.

Reply to this comment

By Hector M.
on January 25th, 2012

I agree on the difference, but anyway for publicly funded activities it is apparently the case that email messages about work and especially those running through institutional mail severs seem to be legally covered by FOIAs.  Not that I am nothing approaching a legal expert, of course.
There should be a difference, however, between a State prosecutor trying to find out whether a crime has been committed, and a fellow asking for data sets and code. The latter should be shared without any restriction, I guess. The former would depend on legal norms I know nothing about.

Reply to this comment

By SeanNY
on July 16th, 2012

“In recent years, an increasing number of lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests have been filed against prominent climate scientists”

Any chance you could summarize the increase in the number of “lawsuits ...  filed against prominent climate scientists”, ie “the number increased from [number] in [years] to [number] in [2012].”

If the result is that “the number increased from an average of zero in the years 2000-2011 to zero in 2012”, could you perhaps calculate the rate of increase? 

Maybe you could even add a projection:  “If recent trends continue, by the year 2020, there could be as many as zero lawsuits filed against climate scientists every year.”  You could even add that your projection benefits from exceptionally high statistical significance.

Reply to this comment

By Coldish
on July 16th, 2012

SeanNY,

According to Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit at least one climate scientist is currently an actual defendant in a climate-related lawsuit ”“ Dr Tim Ball, who was formerly (now retired) a professor of climatology at Winnipeg University.  Perhaps Andrew can add to the list.  Anyway the total is not quite zero.

McIntyre suggests that Dr Ball should apply to the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund for financial support in his case.  He would seem to qualify.

Coldish

Reply to this comment

By SeanNY
on July 16th, 2012

Good catch, Coldfish.

So to correct myself, “the number increased, from an average of zero in the years 2000-2011 to one in 2012, an increase of infinity over the period.”

Plotting this rate of increase exponentially over the next 8 years shows that by 2020 the known universe will be made up entirely of climate scientists who are defendants in climate-related lawsuits. 

Fortunately, that will leave no room for plaintiffs, so perhaps the overall system will be self-correcting?

Reply to this comment

By Tyler Jordan (Hobart / Tasmania / 7000)
on August 1st, 2012

Seems like a move by a private organization which will embolden the immoral/amoral to publish fraudulent work.

Reply to this comment

By Zech (Pakland, CA)
on September 20th, 2012

You’re missing the point. Mann was cleared *eight* times. These are lawsuits designed to be a nuisance and a fishing expedition for anything that can be used as marketing material to sow doubt.

They are a waste of taxpayer money and should be stopped.

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
City/State/Zip:
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.