Harvard vs. University of Virginia…not even close (NOTE: A version of this essay appeared in the September 3, 2010 Wall Street Journal “letters to the editor”)

An insight into the apparent difference in how “scientific misconduct” at Harvard University is handled, and how it has been handled at Penn State and the University of Virginia in the matter of climatologist Michael Mann is now available.

Harvard professor of psychology Marc Hauser was found “solely responsible for eight instances of scientific misconduct” involving the “data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results” according to the August 20, 2010 statement by Harvard dean Michael D. Smith. This finding was issued based on a faculty investigating committee study. The report noted that it began with an “inquiry phase” in response to “allegations of scientific misconduct.” It seems that there were allegations of “monkey business” in his research on monkey cognition. Three papers by Hauser, presumably peer reviewed, will need to be corrected or retracted according to Dean Smith. The academic fate of the professor is yet to be decided.

In contrast, the two reviews of the behavior of climatologist M. Mann at Penn State seemed primarily focused on his data housekeeping habits and openness to sharing his data and analysis methodology. He was found to have acted within the “accepted practices within the scientific community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research.” The issues of data acquisition and analysis validity were not pursued; the number of awards and publications Mann received was cited as evidence of the validity of his work.

At the University of Virginia an “inquiry phase”, such as noted in the Harvard protocol, was initiated by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli into the possible misuse of public funds by Mann in his pursuit of employment by the University and his use of such funds in his research activities there. Virginia state law gives wide discretion to the AG in the initiation of investigations into suspected misuse of state funds. This request was met with claims of impingement on sacred academic freedom, and chilling the environment for academic research in general by the university and its various supporters. Rather than welcome the chance to dispel the suspicion of scientific misconduct and protect its academic reputation, the university enlisted a high powered D.C. legal team to fight the AG request in court.

While this legal process plays out, the court of public opinion must wonder why the openness and direct dealing with such allegations exhibited by Harvard is not the model for the University of Virginia. Harvard is shown to be a scientifically open and self policing university; UVa is hiding behind its self-righteous claims of academic freedom and legal barricades. Whose research will the public more likely trust?

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