Science in the Crosshairs
After furor erupted over a video seeming to imply that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue to research institutions, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce convened a select investigative panel to examine practices involving fetal tissue in late 2015. Since then, the panel, chaired by Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, has issued subpoenas to more than 80 individual researchers, institutions, and companies involved in research on fetal tissue or its procurement.
The scientific community has said these subpoenas threaten researchers’ time, energy, and reputations, and that other activities by the committee—such as making public the names and addresses of researchers who use fetal tissue—could endanger those researchers’ lives. In May, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology called this panel “a witchhunt” by the anti-abortion lobby.
(Science Friday offered Representative Blackburn’s office a chance to respond to these criticisms. As of this article’s publication, we have not received a statement.)
University of Pittsburgh virologist Carolyn Coyne talks about the danger the new frenzy over fetal tissue research could have, and why this research is vital. As one example, it could help us better understand and prevent the spread of Zika virus. And Eugene Gu, whose company Ganogen has been subject to one of these subpoenas, describes the burden that congressional attention can put on scientists. In his post as a surgical resident, for instance, his research has been on hold for more than a year.
Then, we take a look at other fields that have come into the crosshairs, particularly climate science, with a scientist who knows the problem well.
As a postgraduate researcher in 1999, climate scientist Michael Mann was a co-author on the paper that produced the now-infamous “hockey stick” graph. It indicated that global warming is happening faster than previously in history. That publication has given him attention and notoriety, not all of it good: He’s been compared to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky and been subjected to lawsuits, and the state of Virginia tried to obtain his academic correspondence through a large Freedom of Information Act request. He was also one of the scientists whose e-mails were hacked and released in the 2009 “Climategate.” What’s more, he’s received numerous e-mails and other communications that he considers harassment.
Man is also the co-author of a new book that discusses the challenges facing those who talk openly about climate research, and he says that lawsuits, subpoenas, and other scrutiny serve only to intimidate and exhaust scientists, such as the NOAA researchers who received subpoenas from House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in late 2015. Mann and Climate Science Legal Defense Fund executive director Lauren Kurtz share their experiences in the legal world of science and discuss how researchers can protect themselves from burdensome attention.
These are some tweets we received from scientists on Twitter about other kinds of harassment they’ve experienced.
Hey #science twitter, working on a story for @scifri. Ever been harassed or intimidated because of the nature of your research? Let me know.
— Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) October 12, 2016
@ctaylsaurus @scifri yes imagine that is true for many working in animal ag – and combined with biotech is a flammable combination!
— Alison Van Eenennaam (@BioBeef) October 13, 2016
@ctaylsaurus @scifri As a young woman working on sea cucumbers, yes from fishermen. As a science writer on #climate, yes from deniers. More
— Sheril Kirshenbaum (@Sheril_) October 12, 2016
@ctaylsaurus Two researchers were firebombed during my undergrad https://t.co/ydnbmQUBY1
— ruphos (@ruphos) October 12, 2016
A selection of the charming emails received by Katharine Hayhoe, a Christian and climate scientist at Texas Tech University. pic.twitter.com/OOHHGHRVzZ
— Oliver Milman (@olliemilman) October 12, 2016
@ctaylsaurus absolutely. Telling someone that you are a nuclear engineer always provokes a reaction, sometimes very negative.
— Joshua Rehak (@JoshRehak) October 12, 2016
@ctaylsaurus @scifri I was approached by a rancher in UT upset that we were on NF land. Afraid he would lose grazing privileges by our work.
— Ian Clifton (@itclifton) October 12, 2016
*On October 14, 2016, the title of this segment was changed from “What’s in a Subpoena” to “Science in the Crosshairs” to better reflect the nature of the content.
Lauren Kurtz is Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, based in New York, New York.
Carolyn Coyne is an associate professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Michael Mann is author of The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet (Public Affairs, 2021) and a Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and the Director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Eugene Gu is CEO of Ganogen, and a surgical resident at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What happens when your research becomes a political flashpoint, when politicians decide to intimidate scientists whose research disagrees with their point of view? Case in point– last year, a video from anti-abortion activists implied that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue to research institutions. In response, the House of Representatives formed a Republican-led panel to investigate whether this was really happening.
As of July, the panel has issued subpoenas to more than 80 companies, universities, and individuals that either research fetal tissue or are involved in its procurement for research. This is not a friendly inquiry. The panel is demanding emails, purchasing records, and names of staff or scientists involved.
Scientists have condemned this panel’s actions. An editorial this May in Nature Biotechnology even called it a “witch hunt.” And last month, the panel voted to recommend that one company, the tissue bank Stem Express be held in contempt of Congress because CEO Kate Dyer did not provide full personnel records. Dyer said doing so would endanger her staff. We offered panel chair Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, a chance to talk about and respond to these criticisms, and we’re still waiting for our phone to ring or get a statement from her office. We will be waiting for that if it comes.
Some of the scientists have received threatening emails full of abusive language. Have you ever been sued, harassed, or otherwise been intimidated because of your line of research? Give us a call– 844-724-8255– 844-SCITALK. You can also tweet us @scifri.
Let me introduce my first two guests. Carolyn Coyne is associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at University of Pittsburgh. Eugene Gu is a surgical resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a graduate of Duke University Medical School, and CEO of Ganogen, a company he founded when he was a medical student. And now he’s the subject of one of the congressional panel subpoenas and fears he too may be held in contempt of Congress. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.
CAROLYNE COYNE: Thanks for having me.
EUGENE GU: Thank you so much, Ira Flatow.
IRA FLATOW: It’s fine. Thanks for– Eugene, I want to ask you first. You wrote me a letter expressing concern about all of this. And you actually are fearful. Tell us why you are.
EUGENE GU: Yeah, even for today, I was afraid I was not even going to be on the air. Because originally, I believe Science Friday is aired from a studio at Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt actually canceled my appearance. And then they actually called me into a meeting and told me that they couldn’t have me on. And I believe it has to do with the fact that Congressman Marsha Blackburn is the congresswoman who’s very close to Vanderbilt and to the Nashville, Tennessee area where I’m doing my residency. And just even being here talking to you today has been an ordeal.
IRA FLATOW: So the university canceled your appearance on Science Friday?
EUGENE GU: They canceled– there’s a Vanderbilt studio where I was supposed to have been aired, but now I’m at a different studio in Nashville.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, OK. Well, we’ll look into that. But what did the subpoena ask for, Eugene, what kinds of things? And what was your response?
EUGENE GU: Yeah, they asked for a very broad range of documents, all the things I purchased as part of Ganogen in order to do my research. And just to explain to the public what my research is about, I transplanted human fetal hearts and human fetal kidneys into immunocompromised rats. And our goal actually is to save the lives of infants with severe congenital diseases such as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, where babies are born with a nonfunctioning left ventricle, bilateral renal agenesis, where babies are born without a kidney.
And if they don’t have a heart transplant or a kidney transplant, they will basically not live to adulthood. And so this is one of our goals. And just doing this research, we got subpoenaed, just out of the blue.
IRA FLATOW: But you filed your paperwork. So then you got subpoenaed, and then problem solved, right?
EUGENE GU: No. I wish it was that simple. We filed our paperwork. I actually had a pro bono attorney, because I’m just a surgical resident. I don’t make very much money. I can’t afford a high-powered DC lawyer. So I got an attorney, Andrew Herman, at a DC law firm who agreed to represent me free of charge.
And we submitted the documents that they requested, all the things that we purchased. And they released a July interim report which said that Ganogen was not compliant– not fully compliant– with the subpoena. It was the same status that Stem Express had before they were charged with contempt of Congress. And in fact, there’s a district attorney in Orange County, Tony Rackauckas, who has charged another company, DaVicni Biosciences, with a criminal charge for the sale of, quote, “baby body parts.”
And so this is just part of this huge, McCarthyist witch hunt which is not only just giving us subpoenas but threatening us with criminal action. And it’s really chilling. It’s very scary that this is happening in the United States of America.
IRA FLATOW: Carolyn Coyne, how would you describe the climate for research involving fetal tissue?
CAROLYNE COYNE: Well, I would completely agree that I think the climate is changing. And I think that the pressure that is being put on basic scientists that I think are trying to answer really fundamental questions about, say, in some cases, human biology or diseases that are specific to the fetus, I think, are really being intimidated. And I think that this is causing some scientists who may otherwise want to address their scientific questions using human fetal tissue– I think it’s discouraging them from doing that, I think, because we’ve all been seeing what’s been going on within this panel within the house as they’re going after everyone else.
And so I think the climate is certainly changing. And I think it’s an area that most people have some reservation to entering in anyway. But I think this is certainly magnifying that. And I think there’s a heightened sense of, I would say, some bit of fear, but certainly, just overall trepidation about entering into this area.
IRA FLATOW: So you feel a bit of trepidation about actually talking about it in public?
CAROLYNE COYNE: Not me personally, no. I think it’s an important issue, and I think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And I think putting the scientists who do this research that are driven by their own curiosity and a desire to help human health– I think it’s important to put a voice to this issue. And so while there is a certain degree of trepidation about speaking publicly about it, I think it’s an important issue that has to be addressed. So that at least hasn’t prevented me from doing so.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Representative Blackburn’s office did not have a statement, as I said before, in response to our questions. But she’s previously said these subpoenas are vital to determining whether companies or researchers are breaking the law by profiting from the sale of aborted fetuses. What if this committee has the best of intentions, Carol?
CAROLYNE COYNE: Well, I think that one would hope that they would have the best of intentions. But I think it’s important to note that, to ensure that human fetal tissue research has been done with the very highest of ethical standards, this research has been subject to very stringent laws and regulations for decades. This is not a new phenomenon of utilizing human fetal tissue in research. This was the basis of many of the vaccines that we all use and have been saved by in many cases.
And so for me, because of that, the motives of the new panel seem to be really unclear. And I think what’s particularly troubling is that, as part of their investigation, they’re not just looking into how companies that might distribute the tissue are behaving. They’re actually questioning whether we, as scientists, should be even able to conduct this research. And there was an interim report that this committee released over the summer which basically stated that no cures have ever been made through the use of fetal tissue research and used that to basically conclude that this research was outdated and that there was really no reason, given all of technical scientific advances we’ve had, to use the tissue.
And so as much as you hope that the motivations are pure, one would certainly wonder whether the panel serves more to, I think, not only intimidate the researchers that use the tissue, but also to intimidate the women who seek elective terminations, and certainly intimidate them into not consenting to providing the fetal tissue for research purposes.
EUGENE GU: And just to interject a little bit right there, Ira, you said, what if the panel had the best interest of researchers or best interest of finding out what’s going on in mind. I would say that, if they did, why did they release, on June 1, 2016, the unredacted names, and emails, and phone numbers of all the researchers who were involved the fetal tissue research, including that of my brother. And also, I found it very intimidating when two armed US Marshals basically knocked on my apartment door during the day when I was sleeping.
I was on call for trauma in the hospital for the past 28 hours, and this was my time to sleep. And I just woke up hearing this banging on my door. So I was a bit scared. And I went to the door. And all I heard was, this is the police. Open up. And I was like, oh, you know, what is this for? I don’t want to open the door unless you have a warrant. And I remember very distinctly what they told me. They said, we don’t need a warrant. This is a congressional subpoena.
And I was just like, wow, what kind of world do we live in where the Fourth Amendment doesn’t even apply, that they can bang down your door issuing this subpoena? So I opened the door. I got the subpoena from Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, living in the same district as her, basically. And it’s just very chilling.
And on top of that, they have a mission statement on the website for the House Select Investigative Panel On Infant Lives where they talk about, they want to get to the bottom of the abortion providers who sell, quote, “baby body parts.” And when they say “baby body parts,” I want everyone to remember that, in Colorado Springs, there was a madman who shot and killed three innocent people. And after he shot them and murdered them in cold blood, he said, “no more baby parts,” the same thing that Marsha Blackburn, Diane Black, and all of these congresspeople doing this witch hunt continue to say.
This is on top of all these bogus criminal charges that they’re filing against us as just simple researchers. And I’m not a big person. I’m a very ordinary, small individual. I’m not a professor. I don’t have tenure at a university. When I was subpoenaed, I was an intern surgical resident basically making minimum wage. I couldn’t even afford an attorney.
And the subpoena has made a big impact on my medical career, something that I’ve worked so hard, for all these years, to achieve. In residency, especially in a surgical residency, if you have an any kind of outsider status, it can really impact the way people trust you with patients. And so like, on the wards, as I’m trying to take care of patients, or in the operating room, I remember, some senior residents are telling me, are you Martin Shkreli? Are you under criminal investigation just like that guy who inflated the price of a drug? And it’s been very harrowing for me.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish Marsha Blackburn and her office or any of these other people on the committee would give us a call and be able to talk about their side of the story. And maybe somebody out there– they’re running for office. They’re congresspeople. They’re running for office. Maybe at a news conference, someone will ask them about this, and they’ll get a statement or get some sort of back and forth with them.
I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Carolyn Coyne and Eugene Gu. Let me ask you, Carolyn, what have you heard from other researchers about these inquiries? Have they been intimidated like Eugene has?
CAROLYNE COYNE: Well, I think anyone, certainly, who has been subpoenaed to Congress– I think it’s natural that you would feel intimidated, and it would impact your, again, willingness to get into the research. I’ve certainly seen it within my own laboratory where people are less willing to promote the fact that they’re working in this tissue, despite the fact that this tissue provides a really vital resource for us. That is, the reasons that we use it are based upon the scientific importance of the tissue.
And so I’ve certainly seen how it has affected, I think, trainees. And I think the point that was just made about– it’s certainly people that– the solicitation of names of trainees, of our technicians, and students, and post-doctoral fellows who are in a much more precarious situation than one might think a tenured faculty is, that, to me, is what is as upsetting as anything. Because one might say that, as a faculty member who has tenure, you can certainly share your opinion and your voice. But when you think about the lab workers, and your trainees, and them, and their information being put onto, I would agree, what essentially turns into a hit list, if you will, I think that that’s alarming.
And as I said, I think what’s going on has not just impacted people that are actively doing the research. I think it’s as much, if perhaps not more, influencing other researchers and preventing them from entering into this line of research. And I think that’s a real shame, because a lot of people have the knowledge and expertise that could be applied to these really important basic questions if they just used the tissue. And I’ve certainly directly sensed trepidation amongst others of not wanting to get into the fray.
IRA FLATOW: Well, and states have been making it harder to use tissue, right, Dr. Coyne?
CAROLYNE COYNE: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: Can you give me some specifics?
CAROLYNE COYNE: Well, so Indiana is, I think, a perfect example. There’s the House Bill 1337 that was signed by former governor Mike Pence that requires that all fetuses that arise from elective terminations be buried or cremated, and therefore makes it a felony to use that tissue for anything else. And so that also includes for research purposes. And so therefore, not only are you then worried about being subpoenaed, it then becomes a crime. It becomes a felony to use this tissue.
A number of other states are already in the midst of trying to change their statutes and laws. Wisconsin tried last year. It didn’t actually wind up going through in that legislative year. But a number of other states have implemented different ways to restrict access to fetal tissue.
IRA FLATOW: Eugene, last word.
EUGENE GU: And just to add on to that point, yeah, I’ve actually put my research on hold when I started residency in July of 2015. And yet despite putting my research on hold, Congresswoman Blackburn, Diane Black, they still issued me the subpoena. And that has been just almost ridiculous. And on top of that, I know, Carolyn, you do research with Zika virus.
CAROLYNE COYNE: I do.
EUGENE GU: What’s ironic to me about this House Investigative Panel On Infant Lives is that they claim that they have infinite lives at their best interest. But research into like what Carolyn’s lab is doing, investigating Zika virus, preventing infant microcephaly– there was an article in the New England Journal of Medicine where they show that rates of elective abortion has increased in countries like in Brazil where the Zika virus is raging. That’s because women who are infected with Zika are afraid to give birth to children with severe birth defects. And now that Zika has gained a foothold in Florida, researchers like Carolyn are very important for helping prevent elective abortions that Congresswoman Blackburn seems to be so against–
IRA FLATOW: All right, and we’re going to–
EUGENE GU: –and to actually save infant lives.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Thank you both, Eugene Gu and Carolyn Coyne, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at University of Pittsburgh. And we’re going to take a break and talk more about this with climatologist Dr. Michael Mann who has faced lawsuits, an email act, and more. And we’re going to switch to climate change now. And we’re going to have some advice for scientists who may someday be called to courtrooms to defend their work. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about science in the cross-hairs, like fetal tissue researchers. Those working on climate science have had their own difficulties, including subpoenas, Twitter harassment, and more. My next guest is someone who has been defending himself and climate science for more than a decade.
Michael Mann, whose 1999 work on the infamous hockey stick graph helped demonstrate that the globe is warming faster than ever before, later found himself in a different kind of hot spot. A House subpoena demanded his email, his notes in 2005, his email was hacked in 2009, Climategate incident, plus multiple lawsuits. Professor Mann’s now the Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University. He’s also co-author of a new book with the Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles that touches on the politicalization of climate research, The Madhouse Effect– How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet.
Also with us is Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund based at Columbia University. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, Ira. Good to be with you.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you.
LAUREN KURTZ: Likewise, thank you.
IRA FLATOW: And we want to ask our listeners if they’ve encountered harassment, or lawsuits, or other hurdles because of their scientific research. Give us a call– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. So you can call us– 844-SCITALK. Let’s talk about this. Michael Mann, tell us about your history of this. When did this all start?
MICHAEL MANN: Sure. Well, back in the late ’90s, as you noted, we published this graph, the so-called hockey stick graph, that demonstrated how unprecedented modern warming is in a long-term context, showing the recent warming has no precedent for at least 1,000 years, and by implication, probably has something to do with us, with human activity, with the burning of fossil fuels. And it became an icon in the climate change debate. And as a result of that, I found myself in the cross-hairs of vested interests and the politicians advocating for them who sought to discredit my work as a way to try to discredit the entire case for concern over climate change as if it all hinged on this one graph.
But because this graph did become so iconic in the climate change debate, it provided an object for them to try to attack. And I, myself, became an object to attack through efforts to intimidate me, discredit me, and harass me.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Personal attacks on you?
MICHAEL MANN: Yes, in some cases, very nasty emails, death threats, not just against me, but my family, a substance that was sent to me in the mail, a white powder that had to be investigated by the FBI. And the list goes on and on. Of course, harassment by folks like Joe Barton, the former chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In fact, Marsha Blackburn, whom you referred to in that previous segment, was also part of this congressional effort to harass and intimidate me back in 2005 by holding out the threat of a subpoena to demand all of my personal emails. Clearly, the idea was to search through my emails and my notes to find something, anything with which to discredit me personally as a means of discrediting the iconic hockey stick, something that I’m sure the fossil fuel interests who so heavily fund Joe Barton and Marsha Blackburn would like to see.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Lauren Kurtz, put this in perspective. What makes Dr. Mann’s experience part of a larger trend? Why do we need a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund at all?
LAUREN KURTZ: Well, so our fund is actually founded in response to one of the cases against Mike. As he mentioned, he’s really experienced the whole spectrum of what a scientist can see. But back in 2011, all these government attempts to get his emails had failed. And so a, quote, unquote, “public interest group” decided to try and use Virginia state’s open records laws to go after his emails. And they filed an open records lawsuit trying to get all of the emails he’d written or received while he was employed by the University of Virginia.
The University of Virginia was all set to hand over his emails. And he said, wait, wait, no, no, this is terrible. And the scientific community rallied around him to raise money to fund his defense. And because it was so many people who put this in, there was kind of a fund that was established to help him. And the people who had envisioned this fund, I think, just expected it to be for Mike’s case.
But at that time, there were several other scientists undergoing similar open records cases, also by conservative groups that wanted some smoking gun email they could use to disprove the case on climate change. Since then, other scientists have gone through the same thing. Actually, Mike mentioned his hockey stick paper. One of his co-authors is actually in litigation right now by the same group that failed against him in Virginia. They brought an open records suit in Arizona. That’s currently underway. They’re trying to get the same emails that he exchanged with Mike during the same time period, just in a different state.
Mike mentioned he’s gotten death threats. We are working with a scientist now, unfortunately, who’s getting death threats. This is something that really hasn’t gone away. If you are a scientist who puts out cutting-edge research, you can get a lot of professional accolades. But if there’s a politician or some other politically, ideologically motivated group that doesn’t like the implications of your work, you can expect to get a nasty response too.
IRA FLATOW: So are there are a lot– would you say there are dozens of scientists now?
LAUREN KURTZ: Oh, yeah. So since we were started in 2011, we’ve helped about 100 researchers.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
LAUREN KURTZ: Some of them, it was just a quick thing– you know, this is what my university is doing. Does this sound right to you? And we’ll, yes, it’s great. Other times, it’s something that we help fund, we help take over, we help the scientists fight back. We get about, maybe, five big cases a year that we need to spend a lot of time on. And then the other ones are just sanity checks or telling a scientist what their legal rights and responsibilities are, those kinds of things. But yeah, it is a real problem. Mike isn’t the only scientist who’s faced this.
IRA FLATOW: Michael, in your book, The Madhouse Effect, you say that there’s an attempt to name names in a coordinated effort to discredit climate science.
MICHAEL MANN: Yes, absolutely. There has been for years. The same special interests that we’re talking about– not just fossil fuel interests, but folks like the Koch brothers, who actually fund a lot of these so-called public interest groups that are behind these Freedom of Information Act demands against scientists– they have been looking to malign climate scientists to discredit them personally as a means of, again, very cynically leading the public to think that the science of climate change is somehow heavily contested when, in fact, there is a very widespread scientific consensus.
Now, in The Madhouse Effect, what Tom– and Tom Toles, of course, the brilliant cartoonist for The Washington Post. And his cartoons are just so effective in really zooming in on issues like hypocrisy. And there’s no greater hypocrisy than the hypocrisy of some of the politicians involved in the efforts to discredit climate scientists. We try to throw some of that attitude back at the individuals who are behind this, not just fossil fuel interest groups, but talking heads that they fund, scientists with impressive credentials who have basically sold out to become advocates for fossil fuel interests and other special interests.
We feel it’s important for people to know what’s going on. And sometimes you have to name names and make sure that there is– you can’t engage in personal attacks and efforts to defame scientists without being called out for that bad faith.
IRA FLATOW: We heard our last guest who– Eugene Gu, who actually wrote me about this. He was abs– in such mortal fear when that door knock came. Actually, it was a pounding on his door. Is that common? Is that a common thing, Lauren, to happen? And do subpoenas have a higher weight than having a search warrant?
LAUREN KURTZ: Every scientist I know who’s gotten a congressional subpoena has been terrified. I guess that’s the first I’ve heard of someone actually being delivered via the door. Usually it’s by the mail or electronically. But still, when you open that email, you open that letter, it’s just this flood of panic. What does this mean?
More commonly, scientists will also get letters, which don’t necessarily have the weight of a subpoena. But first of all, the scientist doesn’t necessarily see it that way. And second of all, that’s still a terrifying thing to receive.
You get a letter from– Omar Smith has done a few of these lately. He’s a Republican from Texas. He’s chair of the House Science Committee. And he’s taken his Science Committee chairmanship as an open door to go after all sorts of scientists who he doesn’t like. He sent lots of letters to people in the climate science community, saying, I’m watching you, I want your emails, I want more information on your funding sources, or even just, I’m watching you. Be prepared. You might hear more from me later.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we’ve been inquiring his office for years. We haven’t gotten a return to have him come on Science Friday. So let me ask both of you, so what’s your advice? What should researchers do if they want to avoid a suit or make it through one of these cases?
MICHAEL MANN: Well, I can draw on my own personal experiences. I was a fairly young scientist at the time, back in the late 1990s. And I was not– I really had no experience that could have possibly prepared me for the onslaught of attacks, threats of congressional subpoenas, the sorts of intimidation efforts that I was being subject to. A career in science does not prepare you for defending yourself in the public sphere when you’re under assault from heavily funded vested interests like fossil fuel interests.
So you have to– at least back when I had to deal with these attacks in the late 1990s, it was pretty much up to you to find a way to defend yourself. And now, fortunately, there is a larger infrastructure that has developed to help scientists who find themselves in these situations. Lauren’s work with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund is so important. It provides young scientists who find themselves under attack some place to go to get advice, to make sure that they don’t do something stupid in those initial few hours when you find yourself at the receiving end of, say, a congressional subpoena or a Freedom of Information Act demand.
And of course, the Union of Concerned Scientists has done so much work in trying to help scientists deal with these sorts of bad faith assaults. They have a wonderful guide book that’s available electronically, on their website, about how to deal with intimidation.
What I would say to a scientist who finds themselves in this sort of situation is, first of all, recognize that this isn’t personal. As personal as it might seem, you are being attacked in this way because your research is important, and there are vested interests who are intimidated by the powerful nature of your research findings. So understand that it isn’t personal. It’s really an effort to try to discredit the science you’re doing because the science is so important.
The second thing I would say is, don’t just act out of frustration or fear. Don’t respond initially to these subpoenas, Freedom of Information Act requests until you’ve had a chance to consult with legal experts, to consult with colleagues who have experience dealing with these sorts of attacks. Make sure you understand your rights. Don’t assume that your university or institution will necessarily do what’s best for you, because sometimes the interests of the institution and your interests aren’t necessarily aligned.
So you need your own representation. And fortunately, again, there are organizations like the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, like the Union of Concerned Scientists that are there to help you make sure you understand your rights, make sure that you’re able to defend yourself against these sorts of attacks.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Professor Michael Mann about his new book, The Madhouse Effect– How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, and Loren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. They’re based at Columbia University.
In the few minutes I have left, Dr. Mann, what are you looking– now, this coming election, when we hear talk about climate science, it must be crucial.
MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, well, you know, in the galleys of our book– our book was actually finalized, and we realized there wasn’t a cartoon about Donald Trump. And so we were able to fix that in the end. Because really, we couldn’t be faced with a more fundamental choice in this next election between a candidate who, on the one hand– on the one hand, a candidate like Donald Trump, who rejects the overwhelming science of climate change, who has dismissed it as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and a candidate, on the other hand, Hillary Clinton, who wants to build on the tremendous successes we’ve made under the Obama administration and move forward. She recognizes the importance of tackling what is an existential threat that we face, the threat of human-caused climate change.
There’s still time to act, but there is no time to delay. And so this is a make or break election as far as stabilizing climate change below dangerous, and indeed, catastrophic levels. As goes this election will go the climate. And I would encourage your listeners to make sure that they vote on the climate, and not just at the top of the ticket, but all the way down in this next election. It couldn’t be more important.
IRA FLATOW: Lauren, you get the last word. Do you agree?
LAUREN KURTZ: Yeah, well, first of all, I would echo, get out and vote. I’d also like to just circle back, the previous answer that Mike gave. I agree with everything he said about a scientist who’s fearful or currently under siege. I also would advise maybe getting out in front of this if you think this is a possibility. It’s not a bad idea to research what your legal rights and responsibilities are beforehand.
We talk to a lot of scientists who are very surprised that open records laws might apply to them. If you are a publicly funded scientist, either at a public university, or you’re employed by the federal government, if you even get federal government grants, it is a very good idea to understand exactly what taking that public money might mean in terms of having to hand over your emails, having to hand over your documents. There are protections in place in many jurisdictions, but in some, there are not. And even for federal grants, you may be responsible for turning over certain information under a public records request. So just be prepared.
IRA FLATOW: An unprecedented time in your experience?
LAUREN KURTZ: Yeah. The increasing politicalization of climate change, or climate science, I think it has really put scientists who are doing good, respectable work into this position where they’re under investigation, and they’re under attack. And it’s really wild, and not OK.
IRA FLATOW: That’s the last word– well, certainly not the last word on the topic, but it is for this hour. Lauren Kurtz is executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund based at Columbia. You have a website on that, I’m sure.
LAUREN KURTZ: Yes, climatesciencedefensefund.org.
IRA FLATOW: And Mi–
LAUREN KURTZ: Oh, I was just going to say, anyone who has a question, we have a contact form. Feel free to send us an email. We have lawyers on the team. We have pro bono assistance available. Please, any legal questions, send it our way.
IRA FLATOW: Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and author of the new book The Madhouse Effect– How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, thank you both for taking time to be with us today.
LAUREN KURTZ: Thank you.
MICHAEL MANN: Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Charles Berqquist is our director. Senior producer– Christopher Intagliata. Our producers are Alexa Lim, Annie Minoff, Christie Taylor, Katie Hiler, Luke Groskin, our video producer, Rich Kim, our technical director, Sara Fishman and Jack Horowitz, our engineers at the controls here at the studios of our production partners, the City University of New York. Just a clarification– I wanted to note that Vanderbilt University did not cancel Eugene Gu’s appearance on the show, but did discourage him from participating today, just to set the record straight. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.
Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.