Experts say alleged PSU cover up of Mann misconduct "extremely unlikely"

On February 3, an official Pennsylvania State University (PSU) administration inquiry into four allegations of research misconduct against Dr. Michael Mann found that three of the four allegations were without merit. The fourth allegation was referred to a investigation committee because the administrators concluded that PSU faculty were more qualified to rule on the fourth allegation than were the administrators.

Shortly thereafter, PSU started being accused of risking its reputation by “whitewashing” the inquiry with a cover up designed to protect Dr. Mann. The accusations came in form of press releases from think tanks, blog posts from media pundits, as well as some traditional media outlets. A typical example was the Fox News report that Republican Represntative Darrell Issa had called for freezing all federal grants to PSU and Mann until PSU “settled all the charges” against Mann, suggesting that perhaps money was the reason that PSU was allegedly covering up Mann’s supposed research misconduct.

S&R decided to investigate the “whitewash” claims to determine if they had any substance. Here’s what we discovered.

The first question we asked a number of experts was about the overall reputation that PSU has, and whether or not its reputation was good enough to warrant protection. The PSU College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (CEMS) (of which the Meteorology program is part) was ranked #5 for graduate schools by US News and World Reports in 2009, the Geosciences programs were ranked between #2 and #11 when US News ranked geosciences in 2006, and was ranked #8 and #10 by US News for Materials Science and Engineering graduate and undergraduate programs respectively in 2009. Furthermore, the National Science Foundation has twice ranked the CEMS as #1 in the country for research in the last 15 years, and CEMS faculty were ranked #7 in the country for the impact of their published papers from 1997-2001 by Science Watch.

In addition, PSU as a whole was ranked #1 in 2009 for research performed on industry-paid research grants. Clearly, both the CEMS in particular and Penn State as a whole have an excellent reputation.

According to Dr. Gary K. Ostrander, Vice Chancellor for Research & Graduate Education of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, “[t]he most valuable component of a research university is its reputation.” Because reputation is so critical to attracting grants, donors, faculty, students, and more over the course of years, he said “it has been my experience that universities take allegations of research misconduct very seriously.”

Dr. James W.C. White, Director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, agreed with Ostrander . “We live and die by our good name. We must be quick to identify problems, and thorough in correcting them.” This is why, when the CRU emails were released and accusations of misconduct by Mann began flowing into PSU’s administration, PSU formed an inquiry committee and immediately looked into it. During his S&R interview, Ostrander also pointed out that it was unlikely that any university would be willing to engage in a cover-up: “It is far better to deal with the fallout of the mistakes of one faculty/staff member (if that occurs) than to deal with the fallout of having been involved in a cover-up.”

Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a co-blogger with Mann at the climate blog RealClimate, felt that it was “extremely unlikely” that any university would be involved in a cover up, asking “[w]hy would a university ruin their reputation by attempting to cover up misconduct?” And Dr. Philip W. Mote, professor at Oregon State University and Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, said “I’m sure universities try first and foremost to protect their reputations above those of individual scientists and wouldn’t be inclined to whitewash.”

When this wide a variety of academics and administrators all feel that a university’s reputation is sacrosanct, one has to wonder how likely it is that any inquiry into research misconduct would be covered up. In Ostrander’s experience, “universities take allegations of research misconduct very seriously and are very responsive to such allegations.” White feels that there’s “no chance at all” that any university would cover up research misconduct, adding that “[l]ying in science is a death penalty, certainly for the scientist, and to the extent that the institution is also culpable, the institution itself.” Clearly, neither man believes that the charges of a whitewash are credible.

Rahmstorf made the point even more strongly during his interview, calling into question the motives of those accusing PSU of a whitewash:

These people would have cried “whitewash” regardless how thorough and objective the inquiry was – they just dislike the outcome. Their response is entirely predictable and has nothing to do with the quality of the inquiry.

So what about the claim made by Fox News and others that PSU’s administration has a financial motive to “whitewash” the Mann inquiry? Ostrander thinks very little of it, saying that “it does not make sense that a top research university would “whitewash” an inquiry when their reputation and millions of dollars in future funding are at stake.” White agreed and pointed out that

we live and die by our good name with reviewers and funding agencies. Why risk the whole institution for one investigator?

White also claimed that Mann’s contribution to PSU’s overall research budget was tiny. S&R decided to verify that claim and investigated the total value of all the research grants that Mann brought into the PSU coffers as compared to the total research money that PSU has earned while Mann’s been a member of the faculty.

According to a list of grants at The Free Republic, Mann has brought in a total of $4.2 million since he joined PSU in 2006, with a significant portion of that money to be spent over the next several years. From 2006 to 2009, Mann’s grants totaled about $1.8 million. In that same period, PSU’s total research income was $2.8 billion ($2,804 million). As a percentage, Mann’s grants represented 0.06% of the total research money that PSU was granted between 2006 and 2009. Clearly, as White pointed out, “[i]t makes no sense that [Mann’s] grants could corrupt the whole system.”

As for the allegations of misconduct made against Mann himself, Rahmstorf had this to say:

I don’t think there ever was any serious basis for an official inquiry. Rather, the allegations are part of politically motivated character assassination attacks aimed at individual climate scientists, by people who don’t really care about science at all, but who dislike climate policy and the idea of reducing emissions. However, a university has little choice but to properly investigate if such allegations are raised.

None of these points fully address the accusations that the entire PSU inquiry process was a “whitewash,” however. S&R asked Ostrander, the Vice Chancellor for Research & Graduate Education, to describe what a typical university inquiry process is like:

The typical process when an allegation of misconduct is brought to the administration is for a responsible official to conduct a preliminary assessment to determine if this allegation has any credibility. If there is reason to believe any inappropriate behavior may have occurred the matter is referred to a committee (usually made up of faculty and sometimes administrators) to conduct an investigation. The first step is designed to weed out frivolous claims. The second step is typically a detailed analysis of the allegation. In my experience they take a lot of time and reflect a vast amount of work on the part of the faculty to get to the truth and make sure that everyone involved/related to the allegation is heard.

Depending on the outcome of the investigation the faculty member may face discipline to include, in the case of the most serious offenses, termination from the university and having the matter referred to the criminal justice system.

According to the PSU inquiry committee report, the completed inquiry roughly equates to the first phase of the process described above by Osteander, the phase designed to “weed out frivolous claims.” There have been complaints by a number of Mann’s accusers (such as Steve McIntyre of ClimateAudit) that the inquiry committee ruled without consulting anyone outside of PSU. If it was the inquiry committee’s opinion that the first three allegations against Mann were obviously incredible, then the lack of contact during this phase is not necessarily unreasonable or unexpected, and claims of a whitewash would therefore be premature. However, during the investigation phase of the process, it would be entirely reasonable to assume that Mann’s accusers would be contacted during the course of the investigation and given an opportunity to have their say.

S&R contacted a number of other representatives of research universities and asked their opinion of the accusations of “whitewash.” Many of them claimed that they hadn’t been following the issue closely enough to be willing to comment. When asked why that might be the case when so many bloggers and media have been accusing PSU of a “whitewash,” Ostrander replied that he had “grown to appreciate that [he] will not know what really happened” unless it was an investigation of someone on his faculty. Instead, Ostrander chose to leave the details of such allegations to the individuals involved in the investigations.

Penn State University is a tier-1 research university with an excellent national reputation. There is no reason to believe that the PSU administration would risk the university’s excellent reputation for any single faculty researcher, and especially not for such a small monetary gain as a few million dollars over the last four years. Ostrander said that “[i]f universities and justice systems have fair and transparent processes it should be possible to arrive at something approaching the truth in most cases.” To this point, the PSU inquiry appears to have been fair and transparent. If the investigation of the one remaining allegation remains as fair and transparent as the inquiry itself was, then there is every reason to believe that the results of the investigation will be accepted by scientists and academics around the world, whatever the results may be. However, if Rahmstorf’s opinion on the political nature of the allegations against Mann is correct, then there will be a group of so-called climate change skeptics who will only accept the results if they convict Mann of misconduct. If that happens, then the skeptics will have proven that they are not actually skeptics according to any accepted definition thereof.

Image Credit
Pennsylvania State University

Thanks to Dr. Ostrander, Dr. White, Dr. Rahmstorf, and Dr. Mote for taking the time to be interviewed by S&R.

24 replies »

  1. Nice work, Brian. The bottom line here is this. People who think that a Research 1 would jeopardize its rep (and hence its very existence) to cover up professorial misconduct are people who simply do not know what they’re talking about. Period. Would these schools risk their asses over the football team? In many cases, yes. Would they go to any lengths to cover for the ineptitude of administrators? Sure they would. But the research mission? Hell, no.

  2. Good job. More articles like this are needed. Explaining how scientists and academics actually do their job helps to show how insane the conspiracy theorists are.
    The scientists are not “out to get you”.

  3. As a PSU alum (1978), I can say that CEMS enjoyed a top reputation even thirty or more years ago. Back then it was one of the best places in the country to study meteorology, geography, or any earth science, for that matter. That particular college, of all the areas of study at PSU has enjoyed a stellar reputation going way back. And so they have the institutional culture and some solid, time-tested processes in place to keep a good thing going.

    I don’t know how the Mann thing will turn out – but I’m certain that the critics (not the skeptics as Brian pointed out) won’t be satisfied unless their opinions about Mann’s work are somehow validated. Regardless, I have a lot of confidence in PSU to fairly sort it out, for all the reasons Brian explained, plus my own memory of how that school operated.

  4. Just another example of the US, its publicly funded education and its research institutions being increasingly corrupt and scientifically ineffective. Penn State just dropped behind the State Pen(n) in my estimation.

  5. Typo: “industry-paid research grantst”.

    The other side of the story is that those raising the accusations are utterly shameless. It was not terribly hard for me to discover the context of the most controversial of the stolen emails and find that they amounted to nothing more than loose use of language typical of a conversation between colleagues. Yet the allegations continued, and those making them have not retracted a single accusation, no matter how clearly it was invalidated by subsequent revelations.

    That PSU nonetheless investigated this shows extreme regard for their reputation. By way of contrast, when Ian Plimer was accused of lying on national television in Australia (, I requested an investigation of academic misconduct by Adelaide and Melbourne Universities (he claims affiliation to both). Melbourne was unable to take action because Plimer is emeritus there. After a long silence, I had the following response on a second request for action from Adelaide Vice-Chancellor Prof James A McWha:
    The University acknowledges that individual staff members may express their
    opinions or interpretation of scientific data and research in their area of
    expertise. The University feels that this issue, which may be perceived as
    controversial, is an accepted part of the freedom of debate in higher
    Judge for yourself how important reputation is to The University of Adelaide.