Climate science lawyers up

AGU-768

More than 22,000 scientists will gather in San Francisco next month to discuss their work. The event's sponsor, the American Geophysical Union, this year is offering one-on-one legal counseling to help researchers defend against attacks on their work. Photo courtesy AGU.

Nov. 21, 2013

American Geophysical Union adds legal counseling to its Fall Meeting agenda, citing scientists' need to defend against increasing attacks on research, correspondence and public statements.

By Lindsey Konkel
The Daily Climate

Time for climate scientists to lawyer up? One of the world's premier science associations is offering the option.

Many scientists find themselves at the receiving end of attacks by groups who abuse open records laws to saddle scientists with vexatious and intimidating demands for personal emails and other materials.
- Michael Mann,
Penn State

The American Geophysical Union, representing more than 62,000 Earth, atmospheric and space scientists worldwide, has teamed with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to make lawyers available for confidential sessions with scientists at its annual meeting next month.

Legal counseling is not a typical agenda item for a science confab, but it's become an important one in today's political climate, scientists say.

The role of science in society is evolving, said AGU's executive director Chris McEntee. As society faces more conflict over natural disasters, natural resource use and climate change, scientists increasingly find themselves in the spotlight, forced to communicate findings in ways they haven't in the past. 

AGU AgendaOne-on-one litigation counseling, McEntee said, is "part of a broader suite of services to help our scientists communicate and interact with the broader world outside of science."

Avoiding naivety

It's an issue few researchers contemplate as they prepare for a career in science, said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York and founder of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

"When you get your degrees in science, you have no understanding of how the legal system works," he said. Such naivety is often exploited to slow down the scientific process, he added, especially in controversial areas like climate research.

The Legal Defense Fund and AGU teamed up last year to test interest; 10 scientists signed up for counseling. Mandia expects "many more" this year.

Lawyers will be available seven hours a day for the first four days of AGU's massive five-day Fall Meeting, held every December in San Francisco and drawing 22,000 scientists to share and discuss their work.

Wrong message to young scientists?

While Mandia sees a need for scientists to get legal savvy, he also fears the message it sends to early-career scientists unprotected by tenure or institutions.

AGU-posters-500"Will young scientists shy away from controversial studies if they fear their work will constantly be under attack?" he asked.

Penn State climatologist Michael Mann has been at the receiving end of multiple legal challenges as the creator, more than a decade ago, of the now-famous "hockey stick" graph merging contemporary and prehistoric temperature records. 

There's no question to him of the value or need for legal knowledge.

"Many scientists in my field now find themselves at the receiving end of attacks by groups who abuse open records laws to saddle scientists with vexatious and intimidating demands for personal emails and other materials," he said in an email. "It is critical that they be informed about their legal rights and available recourse."

The AGU Fall Meeting starts Dec. 9.

Lindsey Konkel is a staff writer for The Daily Climate and its sister site, Environmental Health News. The two news sites offer independent reporting on health, the environment, energy and climate change. 

Photo of a 2007 AGU Fall Meeting poster session courtesy of Ole Mikkelson/flickr.

Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org

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