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The funding of a climate contrarian: the murky case of Willie Soon

Revelations about so-called climate expert Wei-Hock Soon, also known as Willie Soon, indicates how rotten things are in the science-for-hire game.

Since 2001, Willie Soon has received $1.3 million — considerably more than half of his total research funding — from oil, coal or electric utility interests and closely related foundations.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Is anybody out there shocked – shocked! – to learn that a leading scientist among the so-called climate skeptics is being financially supported by oil, coal and utility interests?

I didn’t think so.

And yet, the revelations about Wei-Hock Soon may redefine your impressions of how rotten things are in the science-for-hire game.

Soon, who was educated as an aerospace engineer but is often described as a climatologist, has become something of a rock star in his corner of climate science. He often argues that most of the earth’s current warming trend is more or less a natural response to fluctuating solar radiation, for which human activities need not be blamed.

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Soon’s work is frequently cited by congressional climate-deniers like Oklahoma’s Sen. James Inhofe, and by outfits like the Heartland Institute or the George C. Marshall Institute, for whom he is a popular conference speaker and commentator.

Naturally, he has been a regular on the conservative talk shows, and is know widely by his nickname: Willie Soon.

Apart from the sheer political attractiveness of Willie Soon’s view that all the doomsayers are wrong, and that nothing much has to change in the way we burn through the planet’s reserves of solar energy stored as coal and oil, the man has published many scientific papers.

Plus, he works for something called the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Surely, Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution wouldn’t put up with scientific tomfoolery or research-funding improprieties on a subject of this magnitude, would they?

Citizen journalism — the investigative kind

Let’s hold that question for a moment and review the new revelations about Willie Soon, his work and his corporate financiers that have turned up in recent days in places like the front page of Sunday’s New York Times.

The Times is actually a little behind on this story; the Boston Globe ran a report a few weeks ago.

Both drew on a body of investigative journalism performed not by their own reporters but by Greenpeace, the Climate Investigations Center and a fellow named Kert Davies, who left the first outfit to found the second.

Davies’ mission is to show how corporate money flows from energy interests to hired “skeptics” like Willie Soon. Here is some of what he obtained through freedom-of-information requests, in a document you can read for yourself:

  • Since 2001, Soon has received $1.3 million — considerably more than half of his total research funding — from oil, coal or electric utility interests and closely related foundations, such as those operated by the Koch brothers. (Conventional funding from government grants or university sources totaled $842,000.)
  • Although direct funding from energy interests has declined in recent years, revenue has been replaced by gifts from Donors Trust, which Davies calls “a dark-money ATM” that gathers and distributes funds from, say, the Kochs without having to disclose much about the money’s origin.
  • Since 2002, all of Soon’s new grants have come from either fossil-energy interests or Donors Trust.
  • In grant reports and other correspondence with funders, Soon has sometimes described his papers, his conference presentations and his testimony before Congress as “deliverables” supported by these grants.
  • According to Inside Climate News, other Greenpeace documents “reveal that Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian gave the coal utility [Southern Co.] the right to review his scientific papers and make suggestions before they were published. Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian also pledged not to disclose Southern’s role as a funder without permission.”

Funders have no influence, Soon says

When reporters have questioned Soon about his funders, he has said simply that his scholarship is not influenced by them, and that he discloses what’s necessary. After reviewing Davies’ materials, however, the Times concluded that:

At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work….

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Environmentalists have long questioned Dr. Soon’s work, and his acceptance of funding from the fossil-fuel industry was previously known. But the full extent of the links was not; the documents show that corporate contributions were tied to specific papers and were not disclosed, as required by modern standards of publishing.

Not trained as a climate specialist

Some of Soon’s story was laid out toward the end of 2013 in a fine, tough profile by the Globe’s Christopher Rowland, beginning with an account of a talk in which Soon exclaimed that scientists who predict sea-level rise as a consequence of global warming are “crazy” and “so out of their minds!”

Never mind that Soon, an astrophysicist, is no specialist on global sea levels, and his most notable writing on the subject was an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times last year.

He has, nonetheless, established himself as a front-line combatant in the partisan crossfire over rising oceans, melting ice, and other climate issues beyond his primary expertise. Coveted for his Harvard-Smithsonian affiliation, and strident policy views, he has been bankrolled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy industry grants.

Soon’s big publishing breakthrough came in 2003, when he and colleague Sallie Baliunas co-authored a “meta-analysis” of 240 climate studies that concluded that global warming during the latter half of the 20th century had been exaggerated in the prevailing consensus. (That paper, I should note, did appropriately disclose that the research was funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute.)

Controversy over the paper’s publication included allegations of methodological flaws and the failure of outside peer reviewers to appropriately scrutinize its claims. At one journal that published it, Climate Research, a handful of editors resigned to protest the decision to accept it.

Soon and Baliunas had plucked weather data from various regions in various centuries throughout history, said their detractors, then incorrectly used that information to make broad conclusions about the temperature of the planet during the so-called Medieval Warm Period, about 1,000 years ago.

But if muttering about Soon and his research has been going on for years in the science and advocacy communities, the facts were in shorter supply before Kert Davies came along and noticed that, as a government agency, the Smithsonian would have to disclose information about the financing of Soon’s work that the funders, the think tanks and Harvard would not.

Keeping an institutional distance                   

What are those institutions  saying today?

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Harvard has been quick to point out that, apart from occupying office space on campus, the astrophysics center has no connection to the university, and that Soon is employed only by the Smithsonian. A spokesman told the UK Guardian:

Willie Soon is a Smithsonian staff researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. There is no record of Soon having applied for or having been granted funds that were or are administered by the University. Soon is not an employee of Harvard.

It is not entirely clear that the Smithsonian actually pays Soon, but abundantly clear that money may well flow in the other direction, as his grants are charged for overhead. A spokesman there told the Guardian that Soon “is not on a salary” and draws his compensation from the grants he brings in. Also:

Academic freedom is critically important. The Smithsonian stands by the process by which the research results of all of its scholars are peer reviewed and vetted by other scientists. This is the way that the scientific process works. The funding entities, regardless of their affiliation, have no influence on the research.

That was a PR person talking. The center’s director now acknowledges that Soon’s violation of disclosure standards at certain journals, as documented by Davies, was inappropriate behavior. “This frankly becomes a personnel matter, which we have to handle with Dr. Soon internally,” he told the Times.

It will be interesting to watch and see how that goes.

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[Update: The Smithsonian Institution announced by email on Thursday morning that its inspector general is reviewing allegations that Soon “failed to disclose to journals the funding sources for his climate change research.” Looking inward, the announcement said, the organization has engaged an outside expert “to lead a review of Smithsonian ethics and disclosure policies governing the conduct of sponsored research and publication to ensure they meet the highest standards.” Full announcement is here.]