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A panel of researchers at the AGU meeting recall legal threats and harassment they’re received for doing their job in science, and offer advice.


SAN FRANCISCO, CA., DEC. 12, 2013 — A panel of climate researchers spoke at the AGU meeting on the legal attacks they have faced for doing their jobs — being sued, harassed, and the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests they say are fishing expeditions looking to manufacture controversy.

Young scientists should expect such travails, several of them said, and realize that help is available and that there is strength in numbers. And that one’s laboratory or academic management is not always of much help.

“The most important thing you can do is talk to people who have been in the same situation,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science now at Harvard University. Science magazine was threatened with a lawsuit in 2004 after publishing an article by Oreskes, and, she said, she felt threatened by extension.

“It wasn’t about me and my work personally, but it was political,” she said. “It’s about a much bigger political issue that you’re caught in the crosshairs of.”

The threat never did materialize as a lawsuit, and in the long run her career was actually strengthened, she said. She became friends with Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy, wrote a book that sold well, and got invitations to publish elsewhere.

“But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said of the experience.

Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of NCAR described the 19 pages of “extremely nasty” e-mails he received, after an e-mail message of his own was leaked in the so-called “ClimateGate” controversy of 2009. In that message he bemoaned science’s inability to close the planet’s energy budget, which he then described as a “travesty,” a remark that was widely misconstrued by climate contrarians.

Trenberth was bombarded with e-mails containing “filthy language” and suggestions he go back to his native New Zealand. A small protest was held at the entrance to his NCAR lab, and the lab increased security.

But NCAR management wasn’t supportive of him, Trenberth said. “Their attitude was it would calm down and go away.” But the harassment lasted, “and I think I was proven right.”

Trenberth noted silver lining in these clouds of harassment. “This is telling you that what you’re doing is important.”

“I don’t think appeasement works,” he said. “We have to push back, and encourage management to do it in a way that is reasonable, because there are real facts behind what is going on behind climate change.”

The University of East Anglia hacked e-mail controversy was a “dark time for our media as well,” said Oreskes. “I don’t think they did due diligence in asking if there was any merit” to the accusations and insinuations then spreading rapidly. And journalists themselves are dealing with cutbacks in their profession, as in-depth reporting from science journalists is often replaced by less knowledgeable beat reporters or, for a controversy like “ClimateGate,” political reporters who see just “another he-said/she-said episode” and are less resistant to biases not supported by science.

“If you’re a journalist, it’s about doing your homework to understand the facts,” Oreskes concluded.

Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University also lamented the lack of institutional support he received when subjected to FOIA requests from the American Tradition Institute, saying his university “gets FOIA requests all the time.”

“Know your state laws,” he advised.

Michael Mann, whose “hockey stick” graph has been a touchstone in the community of those resistant to climate science, joked that he might be “the most attacked and vilified scientists alive.”

It was, he thinks, because the hockey stick told a simple story; “you didn’t need a lot of physics to understand it,” and it was a threat to “vested interests.” His most serious challenge, he said, was a 2005 request by Congressional representative Joe Barton (R-TX), who made an extremely broad request of Mann and his co-authors for their data, details of their methods, and personal information.

“It’s in the first few hours, and the first few days, where you can easily make mistakes,” Mann recalled of that experience.

Largely as a result of Mann’s travails, there now exist support networks and legal resources that scientists can turn to when facing threats and actions for doing their job. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been very helpful, several people on the panel said, and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund now exists to offer assistance.

For scientists who work for government or federal labs, the Washington, D.C. organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER) offers free legal counsel and support. Their Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who spoke from the AGU panel, said that when threatened, “many scientists act as antelope do, scattering from the lion in different directions.”

But threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” said Ruch, and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.”

“Organized opposition can be effective as well as psychologically rewarding.”

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