Willie Soon’s Failure to Disclose Industry Funding for Contrarian Climate Research is Another Reason to Support Transparency

February 24, 2015 | 1:07 pm
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

My first job in science communication was as an “Explainer” in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The program helps visitors – particularly students – understand the forces of flight. Our uniforms included red polo shirts that said “The Explainer Program” on the front and had the name of the company that sponsored the program – Cessna Aircraft – on the sleeve.

I recall this old uniform because the Smithsonian is under scrutiny for an entirely different type of sponsorship that was hidden from public view.

Two failures to disclose suspect climate science funding

Documents published by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center show that the Smithsonian agreed not to disclose payments Southern Company was making to an aerospace engineer – Willie Soon – who regularly criticizes mainstream climate science.

Explainers at work

Two Explainers at work in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s How Things Fly Gallery. Note the sponsor logos on the sides of their shirts. I still visit the gallery on occasion and highly recommend it to anyone visiting DC, especially when traveling with younger children as well as the young-at-heart. (Source: National Air and Space Museum.)

Soon is a part-time employee at an astrophysics center jointly operated by the Smithsonian and Harvard University. He has a track record of publishing papers on a variety of climate-related topics, especially the relatively minor role the sun plays in recent climate change, which interest groups and politicians who oppose climate policy breathlessly promote to spread doubt about climate science.

Sen. Inhofe taking the floor to argue about climate science.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) pointing to a poster featuring Willie Soon and other people who dispute mainstream climate science during a January Senate speech. The poster was crafted by the Heartland Institute, a fossil-fuel-funded think tank that has harassed mainstream scientists and long collaborated with Soon. According to OpenSecrets.org, Southern Company was Sen. Inhofe’s 11th largest donor from 2009-2014. (Source: C-Span 2, via Heartland Institute)

Southern Company is one of the largest utilities in the United States and it relies on coal, natural gas and nuclear power to serve its customers. It has been highly critical of attempts to address climate change.

As part of the contracts it entered into related to Soon’s work, the Smithsonian agreed that it would “not publish and utilize the name or otherwise identify” Southern Company or its affiliates as a funder of Soon’s research without the company’s written consent.

That’s a far cry from my old shirtsleeve.

The lack of disclosure also applied to Soon’s research publications. Inside Climate News lists 11 instances in which Soon failed to disclose his funding to scientific journals. In at least one instance, Soon neglected to list any sponsors for his research in a scientific paper, but privately listed it as a “deliverable” to Southern Company. The Climate Investigations Center has reached out to the journals, some of which have strong disclosure policies that Soon seems not to have followed.

Corporate interference

The contracts also say the Smithsonian will provide Southern Company with “an advance written copy of proposed publications regarding the deliverables for comment and input, if any” from Southern Company.

I wondered if it was remotely possible that this could be interpreted as giving a funder a polite heads up about forthcoming research, so I ran the language by Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst in our Center for Science and Democracy. “Any scientist would recognize that as inappropriate,” she said. There’s a distinction to be made, she added, between a company providing funding for scientific discoveries and a company commissioning work to produce specific results. Funders shouldn’t have a right to edit scientific work or dictate which results get published, she said.

A history of opaque fossil fuel funding

This isn’t the first time Greenpeace or the Climate Investigations Center has exposed corporate funding for Soon’s work; the Boston Globe has been on the case, too. Soon’s other funders have included Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries and the dark money group Donors Trust. And while there’s nothing wrong with corporations financing research – they fund a lot of high-quality research – it’s worth examining what kind of research companies want to fund and why. Additionally, Soon reported Congressional testimony as a deliverable to Southern Company, despite the fact that the grants he received were supposedly about new scientific research.

API Memo

Excerpt from a 1998 API memo on a communications plan to spread doubt about climate science. (Source: Climate Investgiations Center)

Soon’s contact at Southern Company, Robert Gehri, also has a history of promoting misinformation about climate science. In 1998, he and others contributed to an infamous memo that outlined the American Petroleum Institute’s plans to spread misinformation about climate science, including promoting the activities of “independent” scientists who would criticize mainstream climate science.

It’s disturbing to think that Gehri was still following the essentials of this plan ten years later. It’s also disturbing to think about what other activities companies have undertaken out of public view. What other work like this did Gehri fund before his retirement and is somebody else at Southern Company still doing this? What about Exxon and Chevron, which also crafted API’s climate misinformation strategy? We know both companies have provided substantial funding for climate contrarian groups; have employees there also underwritten climate research like this out of public view? To what degree have these activities shifted to privately-owned companies like Koch Industries? And have these companies and affiliated funders simply shifted money to dark money groups like Donors Trust?

At least two members of Congress are starting to ask companies and academic institutions questions like these. They deserve answers.

Companies should be disclosing these things, too, of course, but they probably won’t unless they are required to by law. Regardless, it’s up to scientists and scientific institutions to disclose, disclose, disclose. And surely, they shouldn’t be giving companies anything that even looks like veto or editing power over new research.

A pledge to investigate

Late yesterday, the Smithsonian said it was “greatly concerned” about these revelations and that Acting Secretary Albert Horvarth has asked the institution’s inspector general to investigate. Horvath said he will review ethics and disclosure policies regarding sponsored research. These are reasonable first steps, as my colleague Michael Halpern noted amid calls for Soon’s firing.

It’s not immediately clear which Smithsonian policies would apply here, though there are rules researchers are slated to follow for “sponsored projects” and more general standards of conduct that apply to all employees.

NASCAR driver Chad Little

Scientists don’t need to replace their labcoats with NASCAR jackets, but disclosure should always be the norm. (ource: Wikipedia entry for Chad Little.)

If this happened with Soon’s work – and for so many years – it seems like stronger, clearer policies are necessary. Further, the Smithsonian should be as transparent as possible with the conduct of its investigation. It’s worth knowing more about Soon and the energy interests that have funded his work, but also about other funding relationships across the organization, especially ones that involve potential conflicts of interest.

More broadly, wouldn’t it be simpler for the Smithsonian to proactively disclose funding – corporate or not – for work its researchers take on? This information was only made public due to repeated and diligent requests from Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center. While some open records requests have been increasingly used to harass researchers, targeted requests serve the public interest by uncovering opaque funding. It simply shouldn’t have been this difficult to uncover such a suspect source of funding for Soon’s research.

It’s also worth noting that the Smithsonian’s independent inspector general is a relatively new position. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) pushed for it in 2006 as he and his staff exposed wasteful spending there. The forthcoming investigation is an opportunity for the IG’s office to assert itself in an era of increased transparency and scrutiny for everyone, including our oldest and most respected scientific institutions.

Growing challenges for science funding

Scientific institutions are increasingly turning to the private sector for research funding. And some scientists and public interest advocates worry that this trend will bias the direction of research. Institutions should proactively disclose potential conflicts of interest to protect themselves and their employees.

Scientific institutions, especially federal ones, need to hold themselves to a higher standard. Funding for research at the Smithsonian, in particular, should be as transparent as the sponsor lettering I used to wear on my sleeve.