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Michael Mann

On the trail. Climate researcher Michael Mann, center left, on a campaign stop earlier this year with Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D), fourth from right. McAuliffe won yesterday’s election.

The Political Scientist: Michael Mann’s Moment in the Campaign Spotlight

By: 
David Malakoff
2013-11-06 17:00

For climate researcher Michael Mann, yesterday’s elections marked the end of what has been an unusual—and perhaps unique—adventure in electoral politics for an academic scientist. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, professor was recruited to spend days on the campaign trail with Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D), and he was even asked to introduce former President Bill Clinton at a major rally. And he was featured in millions of dollars’ worth of television ads attacking McAuliffe’s opponent, Ken Cuccinelli (R), the Virginia attorney general who launched a controversial investigation into research that Mann conducted when he worked at the University of Virginia (UVA).

“Scientists by our nature try to avoid getting entangled in partisan politics, but in this case … I didn’t come to politics, politics came to me,” Mann told ScienceInsider today from his home in Pennsylvania, where he was working after a late night of watching election returns and celebrating McAuliffe’s narrow victory. But the “difficult decision” to get involved in the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli duel came down to one thing, he says: “I wanted to make sure that the forces of antiscience did not gain a stronger foothold in our politics, and that’s what a Cuccinelli victory would have meant. …  Here you had a candidate who not only rejected what science has to say about climate change, but felt it necessary to attack scientists.”

Three years ago, when Cuccinelli launched his investigation of Mann, it was hard to imagine that the balding climate specialist would end up playing such an active role in thwarting the telegenic conservative star. In the 2009 election for attorney general, Cuccinelli won soundly, with 58% of the vote, on a conservative platform that included vows to fight government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Soon after taking office in 2010, Cuccinelli invoked a state fraud statute to demand that UVA, where Mann worked until 2005, turn over records related to a number of the scientist’s grants.  Cuccinelli claimed that he was focused on safeguarding taxpayer funds, and not trying to discredit Mann’s scientific findings, including the iconic “hockey stick” graph that reconstructs how global temperatures have risen over time. Academic and environmental groups rallied to Mann’s defense, with one group of professors at Virginia’s Old Dominion University calling Cuccinelli’s move a “witch hunt.” After numerous legal skirmishes, state courts ultimately ruled last year that Cuccinelli did not have the legal authority to compel release of the documents.

By then, Cuccinelli had begun his bid for the governorship, preparing for a face-off against McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic Party fundraiser and businessman who had been trounced in his 2009 bid to lead the state. This past summer, as the race heated up, McAuliffe’s campaign asked Mann if he would publicly endorse McAuliffe, and perhaps play a role in the campaign. Mann said yes, but not because he wanted to settle a personal grudge against Cuccinelli. “It was such a stark contrast [between the candidates] that it was easy to decide to get involved purely on the merits,” he says. “I’ve tried hard to not let it become personal,” he adds, noting that he has never met Cuccinelli. “When you personalize things, you become emotional and less rational. I wanted this to be a rational decision.”

Mann learned more than he expected about politics. In July, he was asked to accompany McAuliffe on a multiday “science week” campaign swing through Virginia’s academic centers and high-tech corridors, meeting with voters and editorial boards. “I gained a whole new respect for the life of a political candidate,” Mann says. “It is an amazingly difficult schedule. You get very little sleep and you’ve got be on your best game, 24-7. Even one small slip, if you say something embarrassing, it is going to be seized on. As a scientist, it was a very different world … a world I wouldn’t want to live in, but it was fun to visit.”

Soon, the airwaves were filling with attack ads—some paid for by McAuliffe’s campaign, others by outside groups—that cited Cuccinelli’s investigation of Mann in trying to paint the Republican as a conservative ideologue out of step with mainstream voters. The campaign used Mann’s story to question Cuccinelli’s commitment to academic freedom and the role of science in economic development, no small issues in a state that prides itself on being the home of a vibrant high-tech sector and a university founded by Thomas Jefferson. It also tried to paint a picture of “an attorney general who abused his authority to go after academics he doesn’t like,” Mann says, an idea that didn’t play well with voters of all stripes, especially moderates, according to polling and focus groups. Cuccinelli’s campaign fiercely disputed such accusations and cited their candidate’s record of supporting research and education while a state legislator.

Last week, Mann made his final foray of the campaign, appearing at a Charlottesville rally to introduce McAuliffe and Clinton. “It was difficult to not be in awe and a bit starstruck” by the former president, he says, noting he had met Clinton briefly once before. And McAuliffe wasted little time in alluding to Mann’s battle with Cuccinelli in his speech: “Here is the bottom line,” he said. “We cannot grow Virginia’s economy by suing scientists.”

Such arguments apparently helped push McAuliffe over the top yesterday, although issues such as abortion, health care, and the economy played bigger roles. “[P]leased that VA voters rejected [Cuccinelli’s] dangerous brand of politics & his contempt for science & rational thought,” Mann tweeted last night as media outlets began to call the race for McAuliffe. He’s not gloating over Cuccinelli’s downfall, he says, but “that isn’t to say that there wasn’t a certain amount of personal satisfaction that Virginians made the right choice.”

Mann’s overt politicking may be over for the time being, however. “You won’t see me out campaigning for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade [policy on climate change],” he says. “I’ll leave the policy debate to politicians as long as it is informed by what scientists have to say.”

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