Monday, March 02, 2015

A Chunk of (Climate) Change

An old saying in investigative journalism is "follow the money."  According to a recent article in the New York Times, that's just what the environmental organization Greenpeace did when it began to look into the funding of publications written by one Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon.  Soon is a researcher associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and has attracted a lot of publicity for his outspoken comments on global warming, which he appears to doubt is due to man-made causes.  He has made the rounds of conservative talk shows to express his doubts, and that is probably why Greenpeace decided to investigate him.  While Soon has made no secret of the fact that some of his funding came from energy industries and interests, documents obtained by means of the Freedom of Information Act showed that Soon was producing papers to order for specific funders, referring to the papers as  "deliverables."  He received over $400,000 from a prominent electric utility and $230,000 from the Koch Charitable Foundation.  The New York Times reports that the Smithsonian Institution is mounting its own investigation into Soon's dealings, and its acting director admits that the Institute may need to clean up its ethical act with regard to disclosure of funding sources. 

As Newton taught us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, at least in physics.  The opposite reaction inspired by the Soon affair has come from the U. S. Congress, which has now showered universities and energy companies with letters demanding information about funding sources for scientists who have criticized the establishment view of climate change.  This has prompted Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, to criticize what he calls "fishing expeditions" by Congress, because of the chilling effect it has on academic freedom.

I heard Prof. Dessler speak about a year ago at Texas A&M on the topic of the history of climate-change science.  In general, he is in sympathy with the Greenpeace view that corporate interests are trying to sow discord in the climate-change area, in much the same way that tobacco interests sowed doubt about the link between smoking and cancer in the 1960s.  But he is objective enough to realize that when Congress sends your university a letter asking for documents concerning your own research funding, it doesn't help you sleep better at night, and it doesn't make it any easier to follow the data wherever it leads.

If everybody would recognize the wisdom of a couple of well-established principles, things like the Soon investigation and the congressional reaction to it might be avoided.

The first principle is, always acknowledge your funding sources in sufficient detail.  I haven't read any of Dr. Soon's papers and I don't know how or whether he acknowledged the specific ties between dollars and articles, assuming these ties existed (and while the investigation is still ongoing, it looks like they did).  As far as I'm concerned, the only time an academic should take money for publishing a specific piece of writing with a specific point of view, is when the funding source itself publishes the piece, as in book publishing.  (Full disclosure:  I am currently waiting for Wiley to publish a textbook I've written, and while I don't expect to get rich from it, I will get royalties if they sell any copies.)  Any time someone comes to you and offers you money to "place" specific publications in other venues not controlled by the funder, especially if readers of the publications will think that what you write is objective and not influenced by outside agencies, you should see bright flashing red conflict-of-interest lights and think about it a long, long time.

Now, I myself have taken money from agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the expectation that I would do work and publish papers as a result.  What's the difference?  Sometimes it's not easy to tell.  Everybody expects that scientists and engineers who take research money from NSF will publish papers about their research.  And nobody I know looks at the acknowledgment section and says, "Ah-hah!  The NSF paid for this.  No wonder it's X, Y, or Z."  This is because the NSF has, overall, done a reasonably good job of letting scientists themselves judge what is good research and what isn't, and whether it should be funded or published. 

The problem that comes up with climate-change research is that it has become a political hot-button issue.  Billions of dollars of corporate revenue are at stake if unfriendly climate-change-related legislation comes to pass, and so corporations that feel threatened are eager to see ostensibly objective research published that favors the views which allow them to keep making more money.  This is rational behavior on the part of the corporations, but the danger to objective science research is clear. 

And that brings me to my second point:  the fiction of truly 100% "objective" science.  Guess what:  there ain't no such animal.  Every scientist has biases, prejudices, and hunches that prevent him or her from being the perfect, suspended-in-the-air, dispassionate, Mr.-Spock-like viewer of objective truth.  In the choice of research topics, in the selection of funding agencies, and in the way research is performed and presented, scientists betray their biases—and yes, even their political convictions—all the time, often while fooling themselves into thinking they are being perfectly objective. 

When the subject of study is not of widespread public interest and influence—say, nematodes—it's fairly easy for the small group of folks who just can't know enough about nematodes to get together and pursue the truth about nematodes, and sometimes come pretty close to ideal objectivity.  But when the subject has vast and time-extended implications for every resident of the planet, as climate change does, everybody wants to get in their two cents, or two hundred thousand dollars, as the case may be.  And while I won't go so far as to say that everyone has their price, if a researcher's salary depends 100% on raising external funding, it's hard to resist the blandishments of a corporation or political group that wants a quid pro quo in the form of research with a predetermined outcome.

While the jury is still out, that's apparently what happened to Dr. Song.  His case can serve as a warning to every funded researcher not only to disclose one's funding in enough detail, but to ask whether one has betrayed the ideal of objectivity for cash. Congress can think about restraining itself from scaring academics and making it even harder to do objective science in the academy.  And everybody can realize that scientists are human beings for whom the ideal of absolute objectivity is just that—an ideal that is rarely, if ever, realized in practice.

Sources:  I referred to the New York Times articles "Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Researcher," appeared at
on Feb. 21, 2015, and "Lawmakers Seek Information on Funding for Climate Change Critics" on Feb. 25 at  After this blog was written, I was saddened to read of the passing of the original Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, Leonard Nimoy, at the age of 83. 

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