Is Koch Money Becoming Radioactive? Maybe, Judging by Museum Fight

Do Charles and David Koch have a future as philanthropists? Of course they do, at least when it comes to channeling their money to libertarian groups. But, increasingly, more mainstream organizations will want to think hard about taking money from the brothers. 

We've reported in the past on the campus controversies that have surrounded Charles Koch's giving to colleges and universities to bankroll economic research. Well, this time it's David Koch's giving that is creating a big headache for the recipients.

Koch sits on the boards of the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, and has been a leading donor to both. Now, some scientists—mostly climate scientists concerned about the influence a fossil fuels behemoth might have on the mission of these museums—are sounding the alarm about these ties. 

The scientists have signed an open letter, as reported in the New York Times on March 24th. While the letter debuted with nearly 40 signatures, it has since ballooned to over 65 signatories, including the former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, author and Ph.D. Sandra Steingraber and the guy who led the writing of both the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports. 

Another 162,000 people have signed a petition calling for David Koch's removal from the boards of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.

The scientists' letter reads, in part:

David Koch’s oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Mr. Koch also funds a large network of climate-change-denying organizations, spending over $67 million since 1997 to fund groups denying climate change science.

When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge. This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost.

Spokespeople from the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History have said that donors have no influence on the content of museum displays. Koch is the largest donor to the Museum of Natural History and also a huge donor to the Smithsonian.  

Maybe this controversy will die down. Or maybe it will escalate. As we said, tens of thousands of people have signed the petition calling for Koch's removal from the museum boards. You don't see that kind of mass pressure on nonprofits very often, just as you don't often see a bunch of eminent Ph.D.s ganging up on such institutions about their revenue sources. 

If you want to know just how bad a Koch funding flap can get, talk to the folks at Florida State University, which was embroiled for years in a fight related to a Koch donation on campus. Or talk to the high command at Catholic University, where another brawl ensued. 

Related - Can Koch Money Come To Campus Without a Fight? Ask Catholic University

The Kochs may have deep pockets, but most nonprofit and university leaders don't have big appetites for controversy and combat. At some point, the calculus may tilt away from taking Koch money. 

There is a certain irony in this latest museum flap, and here's why: Close observers of the Kochs, including this publication, know that family money goes to a number of causes unrelated to their political agenda. David Koch in particular gives big for health, and for arts and culture. He's also a big natural history buff. But as the Koch name has become radioactive, every stream of Koch philanthropy is now facing scrutiny. 

While it seems unlikely that Koch giving to museums would influence exhibits related to climate (although such allegations aren't new), maybe that fear is not what this latest campaign is about. Maybe the real goal is to further diminish Koch respectability in elite circles and increase the cost to institutions that grant them respectability—all with the larger goal of getting the brothers to modify how they deploy their money in the sphere of politics and policy. 

Can you fund climate denial and still get invited to black tie events in Manhattan? So far, the answer has been yes. But maybe that's going to change.