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Murry Salby responds to the attacks on his record

Murry Salby

Murry Salby was sacked from Macquarie University, and Macquarie  struggled to explain why, among other things, it was necessary to abandon, and strand him in Paris and hold a “misconduct” meeting in his absence. Since then he has been subject to attacks related to his previous employment. I’ve asked him to respond, which he has at length in a PDF here. The figures listed below refer to that PDF, which encompasses 15 years of events.

I don’t have the resources (unlike the  National Science Foundation, the NSF) to investigate it all, but wanted to give Murry the right of reply. On closer inspection the NSF report used by people to attack Salby does not appear to be the balanced, impartial analysis I would have expected. Indeed the hyperbolic language based on insubstantial evidence is disturbing to say the least. Because of the long detailed nature of this I cannot draw conclusions, except to say that any scientist who responds to a question about Murry Salby’s work with a reference to his employment is no scientist.

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.  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.

My summary of his reply

First and foremost, there is nothing in any of the NSF claims that questions Murry Salby’s scientific research. This is about paperwork and whether bureaucratic procedures have been properly followed, not about his science.

There is another side to the story and a long and complex history regarding Murry Salby’s work at Colorado University (CU). It started way back in 1997 when he noticed funds were going missing from his NSF-funded research group. After requests for their return were ignored, he reported it to the NSF. By 2003 it reached the stage where the NSF launched a criminal investigation into Colorado University for misappropriation of research funds. The investigation stopped when $100,000 was returned to Salby’s group. Salby was unable to find out where half those missing funds had been placed during the time they had been missing. Possibly this did not make him friends at CU.

Later after Salby left CU in 2008 to come to Australia, Colorado University withheld his computer files and work. After requests for those were also ignored, he launched a case from Australia, and won access to everything — CU paid legal costs as well. Curiously, soon after Salby launched that case, the NSF revived a dormant scientific investigation against Murry which went on to make some extremely serious claims — claims that Salby completely disputes (see his full letter).

Salby had already moved to Australia when the NSF investigation was revived, so he could not apply for any more NSF grants. He explains that given the expense and distance, there was little point in launching a major legal protest to a debarment from funding that he was no longer eligible for in any case.

Hyperbole and tenuous reasoning?

At a glance, anyone reading the NSF report might come away thinking Salby “fabricated” time-sheets, a rather serious accusation.  Yet on page 30 of the NSF document, even the Acting Deputy Director of the NSF admitted there was “insufficient evidence to support this allegation”.

NSF Report, Deputy Director Cora B. Marrett, p 30

The time and effort reports were a key point, mentioned more than 20 times, and referred to in dramatic language with words like “inaccurate”, “fabricated” and “fraudulent”. The allegation over the time sheets were described as “The most egregious act…” in the report. Other points also hinged on this point for which evidence was “insufficient”.

The report even goes so far as to declare they were “separately created years after the fact”. How did such a serious and unsupported claim become written all through the final report?

For the record, Salby notes that timesheets were filed years earlier by his administrative staff, who kept them on file and later invoiced his hours (see his Fig 2a and Fig 3). Salby wonders why the NSF did not pursue those records more diligently, and if the cumulative hours were so unbelievable why they found no fault when they were originally submitted.

As for evidence, apparently the NSF report authors thought that  Salby’s hours were “highly implausible”, saying that scientists would not work 14 -16 hours stretches for three months at a time. This may be true for administrators, but it is not necessarily so for scientists. Those hours are unusual, but not implausible for a dedicated researcher.

One other major claim by the NSF was that Salby had submitted two proposals that overlapped. Apparently 53% of one proposal was identical to an earlier one (which didn’t get funding, so this was not about “extra income” or double dipping). I wouldn’t have thought it was that out-of-the-ordinary for submissions to reuse the reviews and references in similar research. Salby certainly feels the submissions were very different projects, and explains one concentrated on dynamics in the troposphere with meteorological data whereas the other concentrated on chemistry in the stratosphere with satellite data. Salby’s documentation shows that NSF officials had even been notified of the other proposal, which was to be considered for co-sponsorship (see Fig 1a and Fig 1b) Note in Fig 1a, the reviewers were very impressed with the proposal, which was knocked back on a technicality. Later, when it was resubmitted, the reviewers were critical of the NSF for wasting their time by not approving it the first time around. The NSF investigation began a couple of weeks after those criticisms).

Some of the other claims with drastic terms include allegations of overcharging and compensation in excess of approved amounts. I gather this is because at one point a member of Salby’s team left. When no one else could be found, Salby filled in for the more junior staff member (and at lower pay rates) during leave from his CU employment (Fig 5 shows reduced CU employment during one such year). Salby evidently displeased the NSF by getting onto the job, and not seeking pre-approval. The NSF claim it was a reason for debarring him and say he was obligated to inform them. Salby replies  that this was no different than the re-assignment of duties to other research staff, performed routinely to meet grant obligations. He notes also that NSF had in fact been informed every quarter, in regular expense reports (see Fig 6). Salby notes that the grant charges were unchanged from what had been budgeted. And, curiously, NASA operated under the same arrangements, yet had no such issues.

This is not a bun-fight I want to get into, I’m more interested in the scientific research he is doing. But unskeptical activists are spinning what appears to be an unbalanced, inconsistent report to do what they do — attack the man, to distract us from his research. (If only DeSmog had scientific evidence they wouldn’t need to run the smear campaigns, would they?)

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.

Now, can we please get back to the science?


UPDATE:  Eli Rabbett tells us the NSF has responded to the question of why the report was on the OIG web site. My response, comment # 2013/08/26 at 6:03 pm.

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