PSU investigation clears Michael Mann of final research misconduct charge

When the CRU emails were published, Pennsylvania State University (PSU) received many emails and letters accusing paleoclimate researcher Dr. Michael Mann of various types of research misconduct. PSU assembled the various informal accusations into a set of four allegations and began an internal investigation into Mann’s activities. Three of the four allegations were dismissed by the preliminary inquiry on February 3, but the inquiry concluded that the existing panel lacked the expertise to make a judgment on the last allegation and empaneled a faculty investigation. That investigation released its conclusions yesterday, finding unanimously that:

Dr. Michael Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scholarly activities.

The four allegations initially levied against Mann were as follows:

  1. Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions with the intent to suppress or falsify data?
  2. Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions with the intent to delete, conceal or otherwise destroy emails, information and/or data, related to AR4, as suggested by Phil Jones?
  3. Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any misuse of privileged or confidential information available to [him] in [his] capacity as an academic scholar?
  4. Did [Mann] engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research or other scholarly activities?

The initial inquiry found that there was no evidence to support the first three, and arguably most serious, allegations – suppression or falsification of data, destruction of data related to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, and misuse of confidential information.

The fourth charge, deviation from accepted practices, was more of a catch-all for anything not specifically addressed in the first three, and so the faculty investigators could, if they chose, revisit the first three charges. And, as the investigation report shows, the investigators specifically revisited the third allegation.

The investigation found that Mann had not deviated from accepted practices in the process of proposing his research, noting that the number of NSF and NOAA grants Mann had earned (five and four respectively between 1999 and 2010) meant that his proposed work met “the highest prevailing standards, both in terms of scientific/technical quality and ethical considerations.”

The investigation also found that Mann had not deviated from accepted practices in the process of conducting his research, both with regard to data collection, data analysis, and the sharing of data and source code. The investigators interviewed three eminent climate researchers, Dr. William Curry of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Jerry McManus of Columbia University, and Dr. Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and all three largely agreed that it was standard practice to analyze data that others had collected and that it was normal to keep data and code private for some period of time. Lindzen felt that data gathered and analyzed using public funds should be expected to be public, but Curry pointed out that his agreement with the NSF let him keep data private for two years. The investigation found that Mann had made all of his data available on-line since 2000 and that his code was now available as well when it was reasonable to make it available. For example, Mann’s recent MATLAB code is not compiler/processor dependent like his early FORTRAN77 code was, and so making the early code public wasn’t reasonable but publishing the MATLAB code was.

Furthermore, the investigation found that it was not reasonable that Mann’s research conduct was too different from accepted practices when his work had been reproduced (albeit it with slight changes) repeatedly since his 1998/1999 papers. In addition, the investigators felt that Mann’s teaming up with other researchers represented a check on any ethical violations Mann might have otherwise been tempted to commit:

The checks and balances inherent in such a scientific team approach further diminishes chances that anything unethical or inappropriate occurred in the conduct of the research.

The investigation also pointed out that the sheer number and type of awards that Mann has won, even when placed under “intense scrutiny from scientists who may or may not agree with his scientific conclusions” suggested that Mann’s research conduct was well within accepted practices. The combination of these three different lines of evidence convinced the investigators that Mann had not deviated from accepted practices for research conduct.

The investigation found that Mann had not deviated from accepted practices with regard to reporting his research, specifically with respect to publishing peer-reviewed papers. According to the investigation report, Mann’s 39 papers as first author and 55 papers as a co-author meant that his work had been reviewed in detail by “dozens of the most highly qualified scientists in the world” and that Mann would not have been as successful in publishing had his papers “been outside of accepted practices in his field.” Mann himself mentioned an issue in the CRU emails regarding peer review, namely that a number of editors of the journal Climate Research resigned as a result of the publication of several papers deemed by the editors to be of low quality. A detailed description of what happened by one of the editors who resigned, Dr. Hans von Storch, is available here. Given this statement, it’s clear that the CRU email discussions regarding the journal Climate Research related to a quality control issue, not any attempt by scientists to pervert the peer-review process. That the investigation neglected to mention this issue at all in their conclusions even though Mann himself brought it up suggests that the investigation agreed with Mann’s interpretation of events.

Finally, the investigation found that Mann did deviate slightly from accepted practices by sharing unpublished manuscripts from colleagues with other colleagues without first getting explicit permission to do so. However, the investigation found that he was “careless” in this, and that being careless was not considered research misconduct – only reckless, knowingly, or intentional actions qualified as research misconduct.

The investigation report contained summaries of all five interviews (the three mentioned above, Mann himself, as well as Dean William Easterling of Penn State – Mann’s supervisor), and there were a couple of interesting points made in the summaries. Mann himself pointed out that the published emails represented only part of a larger context and that the publication of the emails would chill communication among scientists, something that has been noted at S&R before.

The second interesting point was made by Lindzen:

When told that the first three allegations against Dr. Mann were dismissed at the inquiry stage of the RA-10 process, Dr. Lindzen’s response was: “It’s thoroughly amazing. I mean these are issues that he explicitly stated in the emails. I’m wondering what’s going on?”

This suggests that Lindzen felt that the PSU process was a “whitewash,” a claim that he made explicit in an email interview reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Other people accusing Penn State of a “whitewash” include Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, Nate Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation in the Centre Daily Times of Pennsylvania, and John Roskam, executive director of the Melbourne, Australia-based free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, in Australia’s ABC News.

In an interview for The Daily Climate’s report on the Mann investigation, PSU spokeswoman Lisa Power said:

Obviously the topic of climate change and climate research is one of great debate,” said Powers. “From our perspective we have done due diligence… Academic misconduct does not happen very often, and when it does, we consider it to be a very serious matter.”

The university, Powers added, receives $765 million annually in research money. “We would not put our reputation at risk over a single researcher. Our expectations are very high.”

Powers’ point about research money and reputation echos the conclusions of an S&R investigation on this issue which found that

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.

In addition, another S&R investigation found that the usual claim that “it’s all about the research grants” wasn’t reasonable given the massive disparity in available money for climate research vs. fossil fuel-related industries.

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