Climate Sceptic Professor Sacked From Australian University Was Banned By National Science Foundation For "Deceptive Conduct"

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A CLIMATE sceptic professor fired from his Australian university for alleged policy breaches had previously been banned for three years from accessing US taxpayer-funded science research money.

Dr Murry Salby, sacked in May by Macquarie University in Sydney, was the subject of a long investigation by the US National Science Foundation.

The investigation (pdf), which was finished in February 2009, concluded that over a period when Dr Salby was working at the University of Colorado, he had likely fabricated time sheets in relation to research paid for through NSF money.

We conclude that the Subject (Dr Salby) has engaged in a long-running course of deceptive conduct involving both his University and NSF. His conduct reflects a consistent willingness to violate rules and regulations, whether federal or local, for his personal benefit. This supports a finding that the Subject is not presently responsible, and we recommend that he be debarred for five years.

The NSF subsequently decided to only “debar” Dr Salby for three years, preventing him from accessing any NSF research grants or being involved in work related to them. The investigation was carried out by NSF’s Office of Inspector General - an arms-length organisation providing oversight to the NSF.

In recent days, several commentators and bloggers have come out in support of Dr Salby, claiming his contrarian views on human-caused climate change had contributed to his dismissal from Macquarie University. Climate science denialist blogger Anthony Watts claimed Dr Salby’s dismissal illustrated the “disturbing lengths a university will go to suppress ideas they don’t agree with”.

News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt, a regular denier of the science of human-caused climate change, said Dr Salby had been “persecuted” because he had “challenged the global warming faith”.

Macquarie University released a statement, saying that it had sacked Dr Salby for two reasons, neither of which related to his position on climate science. The statement said Dr Salby “did not fulfill his academic obligations, including the obligation to teach” and “his termination involved breaches of University policies in relation to travel and use of University resources.”

The university also said it had conducted two separate investigations into Dr Salby’s conduct before terminating his employment. The Australian newspaper carried a sympathetic account of Dr Salby’s sacking, reporting an email written by Dr Salby which had previously been published on several climate sceptic blogs.

In that email, Dr Salby claimed he had been poorly treated by the university and alleged the institution had denied him access to research funds he had been promised. He also claimed he had been left stranded at an airport in Paris after the university cancelled his return ticket. In the email, Dr Salby chose to point out how “Macquarie is a publically-funded enterprise. It holds a responsibility to act in the interests of the public.”

The NSF reported in a bulletin on the investigation into Dr Salby:

Our investigation revealed that the subject (Dr Salby), consistently and over a period of many years, violated or disregarded various federal and NSF award administration requirements, violated university policies related to conflicts and outside compensation, and repeatedly misled both NSF and the university as to material facts about his outside companies and other matters relating to NSF awards.

The NSF investigation into Dr Salby documented how two companies had been set up to administer grants and research he was conducting. At the time Dr Salby was at the University of Colorado, where he had worked as a professor from 1988 until his resignation in 2007. Dr Salby tried to sue the University of Colorado for constructive dismissal.

Court documents indicate the university placed restrictions on Dr Salby, preventing him access to documents and office space and prompting his resignation. The restrictions were imposed as a punishment resulting from Dr Salby’s alleged reluctance to correctly complete Conflict of Interest forms.

The investigation report found that “the total estimate of improperly collected indirect costs is $117,565.” The report added that payments to Dr Salby from a second company had been based on “fabricated time and effort reports”. The report also found that “the charges based on the reports may also be an unallowable cost in the total amount of $303,281”.

The investigation looked at Dr Salby’s involvement with two private companies and alleged he had misled his university and the NSF about the relationship between those two companies and his involvement with them. Dr Salby or his related companies had applied for funds through the NSF and the investigation alleged he had made an application to two different federal agencies for essentially the same work.

Dr Salby had previously denied this was the case, the report said, and he had argued the projects were different. In relation to these companies, the investigation found:

After many years of operation of the first company, the subject created a second, for-profit company that acted as a subcontractor to the first company. The subject was the sole owner and employee of the second company, which existed solely to receive grant funds from the first company and pay them to the subject as salary.

In relation to the time sheets, a report of the investigation said:

When we asked him (Dr Salby) to supply supporting documentation for the salary payments, the subject provided timesheets reflecting highly implausible work hours—for example, the subject claimed effort averaging nearly 14 hours a day for 98 continuous days between May and August 2002 (including weekends and holidays), and in other instances claimed to have devoted as much as 21 hours per day to the project.

The investigation made six findings against Dr Salby. Among these was that Dr Salby had “repeatedly made false and misleading statements to the University, and failed to abide by its established policies on conflicts of interest and financial disclosures.”

Dr Salby was appointed to his position at Macquarie University in 2008, several months before the final report of the NSF investigation.

The investigation report also details their attempts to get a response from Dr Salby to the final accusations. After couriering the report to Australia, leaving messages on his Macquarie University voicemail and sending emails to two different addresses, Dr Salby responded one month later.

Dr Salby then denied that a second company had been subcontracting to another, denied that the companies were accountable under NSF rules and also claimed that his timesheets were accurate. A letter to Dr Salby, attached to the investigation, outlined the wide-ranging restrictions relating to his “debarment period” when he would not be allowed to access NSF grants.

… you will be barred from having supervisory responsibility, primary management, substantive control over, or critical influence on, a grant, contract, or cooperative agreement with any agency of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.

DeSmogBlog has approached Macquarie University for a response.

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The two July 12 articles on Salby mostly published official documents relevant to assessing the credibility of unsupported accusations by Salby.  This generated various odd criticisms, of which the silliest was by Jo Nova:

Anthony Watts quoted Jo Nova as writing:
'Remember the NSF report was supposedly an inhouse private document. It was marked “Confidential”, subject to the Privacy Act, with disclosure outside the NSF prohibited except through FOIDesmog vaguely suggest there “must have been an FOI”, but there are no links to support that. In the end, a confidential, low standard, internal document with legalistic sounding words, may have been “leaked” to those in search of a character attack.'

That must have been an early version, written with little thought, copied the next morning by Watts, but Nova later edited the post (various WebCites), without  notice:

'Note that the NSF report, as “authoritative” as it appears on the surface, made a serious allegation that couldn’t even be supported. This was not a criminal investigation. There were no financial repercussions in the sense that there were no repayments involved, no changes to the grants being investigated, and no question that his scientific work did not measure up. Ultimately it boils down to paperwork and bureaucratese. That doesn’t mean Salby was a Saint, but I am surprized at the hyperbole used in the NSF investigation. To make repeated claims without evidence seems most untoward. It would appear that the author(s) were not approaching this calmly and dispassionately.'

Some people write about this with little knowledge of FOIA or NSF OIG investigations.  The NSF OIG is not the DoJ, and most investigations get settled well before bringing potential criminal issues to the DoJ.  Like the IRS, the OIG must prioritize, and chasing someone in Australia might not be high on the list.  Assessing scientific merit is totally outside the OIG's mission.

People also write without bothering to read or check trivially-available evidence.Graham (and I) cited the NSF Closeout Report, whose page 2 prominently says:

'This Confidential Investigation Report is the property of the NSF OIG and may be disclosed outside NSF only by OIG under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, 5 U.S.C. $$552,552a'

That is standard language and of course I read it before commenting:

'* H/T to Graham Readfearn for finding the NSF Final Report, which must have been FOIAed sometime before, as such are not otherwise made public.'

In reading the PDF, and I clicked File > Properties > Description:

'Created: 2/3/2010 11:09:45 AM
Modified: 11/19/2010 1:26:37 PM'

When a FOIA requests a confidential report any part of which legally can be made available, the agency has to follow privacy and other laws and REDACT parts and sometimes omit whole sections.  The obvious explanation is that someone who knew about this made a FOIA request in 2010, but Salby was not visible in climate anti-science until his August 2011 talk at the Sydney Institute.  I doubt that Graham owns a time machine.  I don't.