What Does A Conflict Of Interest In Climate Science Look Like?
On Saturday, the New York Times published a scathing criticism of Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Wei-Hock, or Willie, Soon for not disclosing funding he received from an energy company for research published in scientific journals.
The Times reported Soon, a scientist known for presenting research skeptical of man-made global warming, has received $1.2 million from fossil fuels interests, at least $409,000 came from Southern Company, an Atlanta-based electric utility that uses coal to generate power (It should be noted a huge chunk of this went to Harvard-Smithsonian, not Soon).
The Times said Soon failed to disclose funding from Southern in his published research — an alleged conflict of interest.
The article has sparked a debate over whether Soon actually needed to disclose his funding and, more importantly, what exactly constitutes a conflict of interest in the field of climate science.
The Times story criticizing Soon, published Feb. 21, left out a key detail that was published in a subsequent story four days later: the Smithsonian Institute and Southern had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
In fact, Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the Times last week that the provision in Southern’s funding agreement prohibiting disclosure “was a mistake.”
“We will not permit similar wording in future grant agreements,” Dr. Alcock told the times in an email — a fact left out of the Time’s Feb. 21 article, but mentioned in another article by one of the same reporters four days later.
Contracts signed by the Smithsonian and Southern contained provisions stating: “Smithsonian shall not publish and utilize the name or otherwise identify [Southern Company Services (SCS)] or its affiliate companies in any publications or advertisements without the express written consent of SCS.”
“My understanding is that these types of clauses are relatively common and are used for brand protection,” a Smithsonian spokeswoman told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “We are on record as saying that agreeing to this language was a mistake and we will not agree to the same language in the future.”
The Smithsonian has launched an investigation into allegations by the Times and environmental activists that Soon failed to disclose his funding sources. The Smithsonian is also launching an investigation into its own ethics and disclosure policies for funded research to “ensure they meet the highest standards.”
Soon is a part-time employee with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who conducts research on long-term stellar and solar variability. He pursues his own funding for his research.
For years, environmentalists at Greenpeace have been attacking Soon for his work, which casts doubt on theories that mankind is the major driver of recent global warming. Kert Davies, who used to work for Greenpeace and now heads up the Climate Investigations Center, has been quoted criticizing Soon in news articles over the past few years.
Greenpeace obtained information that Soon was getting money from energy companies in 2009 through a Freedom of Information Act request. Over the years, they’ve been gathering more documents and revealing them to the media.
“What it shows is the continuation of a long-term campaign by specific fossil fuel companies and interests to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change,” Davies told the Times.
Harvard-Smithsonian doesn’t have a conflict of interest policy of its own, but instead relies on its researchers to follow the policies.
“The CfA doesn’t have a policy regarding disclosure of funding sources when publishing research results,” a spokeswoman told TheDCNF. “Some journals have disclosure requirements, and we rely on our researchers to follow those requirements when they submit to those journals.”
But did Soon violate the disclosure requirements of the journals that published studies he wrote with Southern funding? It’s not so clear, according to Science Insider.
When Soon’s article on the impacts the sun has had on the climate in 2009 in the journal Physical Geography, there was no firm disclosure policy. It was effectively based on the “honor system,” editor Carol Harden told Science Insider.
“We were then published by a small, family-owned publishing company,” she said, adding “in hindsight, maybe that line should have been a red flag.”
Robert Strangeway has been the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics since early 2012. In 2011 and 2012, the journal published three papers co-authored by Soon that were funded by Southern Company.
The journal does ask authors to disclose any conflicts of interest, but Strangeway himself admitted he’s never thoroughly examined one. In fact, he doesn’t even know what he’d do if a conflict were discovered.
“My role is to vet the science,” Strangeway told Science Insider. “Generally, I don’t know any of [the authors] individually … and we assume that they have properly [disclosed]. I simply don’t have the resources to go back and check all of that.”
“It’s possible we’ll have to go back and add some kind of errata,” he said. “Does this mean we should go back through every paper?”
But then the question becomes, what constitutes a conflict of interest in climate science — a field where most of the data used is publicly available and scientists all receive funding from governments, activist groups and private industry.
Such controversies are rare in climate science, Harden told Science Insider, adding that “they can be tricky” since a conflict of interest is often a subjective issue.
“I’m for full disclosure,” she said, “but I’m not sure how we’re going to address this.”
“The intense politicization of climate science makes bias more likely to be coming from political and ideological perspectives than from funding sources,” said Judith Curry, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Unlike research related to food and drug safety and environmental contaminants, most climate science is easily replicable using publicly available data sets and models,” Curry said. “So all this [in my opinion] is frankly a red herring in the field of climate science research.”
“Bottom line: Scientists, pay attention to conflict of interest guidelines for journals to which you are submitting papers,” she added. “Select journals that have COI disclosure requirements that are consistent with your comfort level.”
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