Widgets Magazine


Suing an academic critic isn’t only wrong, it’s also unjust

Stanford’s research is once again at the center of one of the hottest debates in clean energy policy – but this time, for all the wrong reasons.

Earlier this fall, leading atmospheric scientist and Stanford professor Mark Jacobson escalated an academic dispute out of the peer-reviewed literature and into the courtroom. In response to a critical article written by a group of highly regarded experts, he singled out and sued the only author who lacks the legal backing of an institutional employer. Litigation is always the wrong response to an academic debate, but is even worse in this case because Professor Jacobson has targeted a member of the research profession’s most vulnerable class.

The dispute concerns Professor Jacobson’s advocacy for the transformation of energy systems to 100 percent renewable energy, which he believes is feasible with today’s technology at a reasonable cost. His argument rose to national prominence in 2015 when he and several co-authors published a study in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Although the paper made headlines for Professor Jacobson and his nonprofit, The Solutions Project, its analysis met with incredulity in the research community, where many judged its technical claims to be implausible.

This summer, a group of 21 experts from Stanford, the University of California and other respected institutions published a response paper in PNAS. Led by Dr. Christopher Clack, an independent researcher based in Colorado, the authors argued that Professor Jacobson’s analysis contains errors and unrealistic assumptions that undermine its results. The ensuing debate spilled over into the media and on Twitter, with coverage from The Washington Post, The New York Times and other prominent outlets.

(Full disclosure: I took a great class from Professor Jacobson in graduate school and work closely with several authors on the response paper, including my former Stanford advisers, John Weyant and David Victor, as well as my current Carnegie Science colleague Ken Caldeira.)

Loud and even bitter fights aren’t uncommon in the academy, but what happened next is unprecedented: Professor Jacobson was so upset by the response paper and its media coverage that he filed a claim for libel in Washington, D.C., suing the National Academy of Sciences and Dr. Clack for $10 million.

This is a dangerous road. If researchers face lawsuits over peer-reviewed technical debates, any scientist working on a controversial topic could be silenced by the prospect of costly litigation. These risks are especially worrisome in politicized subjects like climate change, where prominent researchers have been subject to legal and character attacks from bad-faith actors who aim to disrupt scientists’ work or its public credulity. Society needs a vigorous debate among experts over how best to manage the clean energy transition, not litigation that challenges the integrity of the broader scientific enterprise. Academic disagreements simply have no place in the courtroom.

Professor Jacobson’s litigation has chilling effects beyond its caustic impact on the clean energy policy conversation. His lawsuit also exploits the professional research community’s inequities by targeting the only author without the institutional means to defend himself.

Rather than bring claims against all 21 of the authors of the response paper, Professor Jacobson sued only the National Academy of Sciences and Dr. Clack, a former postdoc turned proprietor of a renewable energy consulting business. Unlike his co-authors, Dr. Clack does not work for a research institution whose legal team could defend its employee in court, and because his legal interests as author are distinct from those of the National Academy as publisher, he cannot rely on the Academy’s lawyers to make his defense. Instead, Dr. Clack has to hire his own attorney, a major expense that could financially devastate anyone without a trust fund – even if the case is quickly dismissed.

In short, a world-famous tenured professor – in response to a peer-reviewed paper criticizing his work – has threatened to financially ruin an independent researcher. Whatever concerns Professor Jacobson has with Dr. Clack, this tactic unfairly puts the most vulnerable members of an already highly unequal profession at great risk. That’s an unacceptable burden to place on researchers who are just starting their careers or who, like Dr. Clack, are pursuing entrepreneurial paths off the tenure line.

There’s an old saying that academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so low. But when a tenured professor escalates an academic debate into a lawsuit that threatens a critic’s livelihood, nothing could be further from the truth.

– Danny Cullenward


Danny Cullenward is a research associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a lecturer in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources at Stanford. Contact him at dcullenward ‘at’ carnegiescience.edu.