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Va. fraud case has broader implications for research schools

Campus Correspondent

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 00:12

A taxpayer fraud case brought against Dr. Michael Mann, former Physics and Climate Science professor at the University of Virginia, by Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has inspired a larger debate on privacy and the limits of a free marketplace of ideas in public higher education.

It was two years ago that the Attorney General originally brought charges against Dr. Mann for allegedly skewing his data on climate change to apply for and receive more government grants for his research, potentially for personal profit.

As a public university, these grants were funded by taxpayer money and thus could qualify for a civil investigation. Cuccinelli demanded all of Dr. Mann’s documents and correspondence, including emails, with other professors regarding his federal grant-funded research. Cuccinelli used Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act as justification, claiming he simply wanted to review them for possible fraud, the Washington Post reported.

However, last week the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that Cuccinelli does not have the authority to demand the release and obtain these records. The Fraud Against Taxpayers Act holds persons accountable who knowingly present false or fraudulent claims for payment with state funds.

Yet the Court ruled that under the Act’s Section 2 definitions, the university is not a “person” and that public universities are not considered “corporations.” The university is considered a state agency and therefore cannot be charged.

In addition, under a clause of the Freedom of Information Act, “data, records, or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff at public institutions of higher learning” are excluded from public disclosure.

“This is a victory for science in Virginia,” said Michal Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists regarding the court’s decision.

Many supporters agree that protecting the freedom of scientists to ask and investigate tough questions without fear of public backlash is central to the spirit of intellectual inquiry and curiosity of higher education. Especially in the state of Virginia, where many political leaders and Cuccinelli himself are skeptical of global warming research, this right to confidentiality must be protected. Arlington County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sheridan stated from the bench, “The concept of the churn of intellectual debate, evolving research, suddenly going up a dead end in your paths of inquiry, having the ability to come back, all this is part of the intellectual ferment that is protected.”

This case has gained attention nationwide, and may raise questions here at the University of Connecticut. Being a competitive public research university like UVA, UConn may face similar scrutiny in the future, especially with funding from NextGen Connecticut.

The bill that grants UConn NextGen funding also calls for the creation of a joint standing committee in the Connecticut General Assembly to ensure academic integrity and responsibility with taxpayer funds. Section 8, Clause C states that starting in January 2016, the committee will annually review the accordance of provisions and a summary of all “research proposals, awards, and expenditures” in addition to “university and joint university-industry intellectual property activities including disclosures, patents, licenses, and new business and entrepreneurial activities.”

UConn also has internal policies to prevent and punish faculty abuse of research grants and university money. The Policy on Alleged Misconduct in Research calls for the termination of grant support with situations of falsified data, as alleged in the UVA case, and misallocated funding (all are required to submit a preliminary budget.) The guide also states that in an investigation of a potential case of research misconduct, “best efforts will be made to protect the privacy of the individual(s) involved.”

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