It's Scary When Climate Deniers Get Boosted by Big Oil. But Similar Conflicts Are Routine

As more interested money flows through philanthropy, more scandals are coming to light. What's really disturbing, though, is how routine conflicts of interest are these days as corporations and business leaders pump cash into research and universities. 

First, let's look at the scandal of the moment: A prominent climate change denier’s work turns out to be primarily funded by conservative foundations and the petrochemical industry according to documents procured by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act. Dr. Wei-Hock Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, accepted more than $1.2 million over the last decade without disclosing where his research funding came from while actively generating nearly a dozen scientific papers that claimed that global warming was primarily due to the cycles of the sun and not excess CO2 emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

The practice of nondisclosure about his backers violated the ethical precepts of almost all the peer reviewed scientific journals in which he published. Yet, in at least one case, keeping mum was a condition of his accepting the backing. More than $400,000 of Soon’s funding came from a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest utility holding companies with major investments in coal-fired power plants. In a funding agreement signed on February 28, 2008 by Bryan Baldwin, Southern Company Services, Inc.’s Manager of Environment Assessment and William J. Ford for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, Soon agreed not to “identify SCS or its affiliate companies in any publications or advertisements without the express written consent of SCS. As further consideration toSCS, Smithsonian shall provide SCS an advanced written copy of proposed publications regarding the deliverables for comment and input, if any, from SCS.”

Other Soon backers include Exxon Mobil ($335,000) and the American Petroleum Institute ($274,000).

After the documents came to light, the director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, Charles R. Alcock, admitted that Soon had violated journal publishing standards. “I think that’s inappropriate behavior,” Alcock told the New York Times. “This frankly becomes a personnel matter, which we have to handle with Dr. Soon internally.”

Why hadn’t the center acted sooner? One reason could be the letter dated March 30, 2009, stating, “ExxonMobil is pleased to provide the enclosed contribution to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the amount of $76,106.00 for General Support.”

A November 8, 2010 letter from Richard H. Fink president of the Charles G. Koch Foundation, accompanied a check for $55,000 to cover research by Soon. The letter reiterated “that the grant will not be used to influence legislation.” The foundation contributed at least $230,000. Soon accepted a grant of $64,935 through Donors Trust with the proviso that it “will not be used for lobbying.” Donors Trust contributed at least $324,000.

The philanthropy was established so that conservatives could back causes anonymously. Both of the anti-lobbying clauses were used to adhere to provisions of the tax code governing charitable contributions. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle which money is being used for which purposes—good for Soon, because he testified before the Kansas state legislature when Republicans tried to block legislation encouraging wind and solar power, and he testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.

During a question-and-answer session after an April 3, 2013 lecture at the University of Madison Wisconsin, Soon admitted to being funded by fossil fuel interests, but described the support as “very small amounts.” Well, not exactly. 

Anyway, back to the big picture, and the corruption of research. 

The flap around the released documents has focused largely on how much Soon disclosed about his funding. But, of course, this is just one example of interested money flowing through philanthropy to back research that may influence policy. Many other examples abound, and a great many researchers who are more mainstream than Soon are supported by corporate funders with strong interests in the policy questions they are exploring. For instance, we looked recently at how many corporations are providing support to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, where scholars are working on a variety of issues that impact the bottom line of those very same corporations. We could cite lots of other examples. 

Soon, with his extreme views, may be an outlier. And his lack of disclosure may be a serious ethical breach. But the conflicts inherent in his funding arrangements are hardly atypical. 

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) is launching an investigation into the unnamed financial supporters of climate change deniers. In a statement released to the Boston Globe he said, “The American public deserve an honest debate that isn’t polluted by the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy.”   

Alas, something similar could be said about any number of issues.