Putting the “Ex” in “Exxon”: AGU asked to dump big oil sponsorship

It is all about the honest conversation. And the dishonest conversation.

Corporate Funding of the Research Endeavor: Good

Corporations have an interest in research. They use this research for profit or to minimize liability. Some corporations have their own researchers, some provide grants to scientists to conduct research, and some fund activities that might not be thought of as research, but really are. For example, the publication fees for peer reviewed journals, funds to pay for scientists to attend conferences, and funds to support a scientific conference are paying for an important part of the research endeavor.

It is not always the case that a conflict of interest arises when a corporation pays for research. In a former life, I was an administrator for a moderately sized research funding entity. We had “member” companies that paid annual dues that were rather high. In return for those dues, we provided experts who would show up and give talks. This was a total rip-off to the companies, because they also had to pay for the travel costs of the experts, but that is not why they contributed. These were Japanese companies, and the experts were all economists. The point was to distribute the money to young scholars — graduate students, post docs, and junior faculty — for whatever research projects they needed money for. The projects had to be real research, but they did not have to be on anything in particular. The results were generally put into a free and open access publication series (along with other research) and we would ship off copies of the publication to all the member companies. Nobody was paying anybody to produce any particular result, but the research was sometimes (but often not) valuable to those companies. For example, some Japanese companies, including at least one that paid us dues, had developed a great new way to manage warehousing of parts. It saved money and reduced waste. One of the research projects we funded looked at that system, compared it to other systems, and recommended how it might be applied elsewhere. In another project, one of the firs studies to ever look at putting some kind of price on carbon was carried out. None of the companies that funded this research had any interest, for or against, this concept.

In the old days, AT&T funded Bell Labs. It still exists today, and I have no idea how it works now. I’m told by people who worked there back in the mid 20th century that it was a place where funding came in from the mother company to allow scientists to do more or less what they wanted to. Numerous important inventions that we use today came out of Bell Labs, and the people who worked there even won a bunch of Nobel Prizes. That was probably another example of industry funding research for the purpose of finding out new stuff, and little or no nefarious intent was attached.

Conferences are typically funded by a combination of grants from institutions (like the National Science Foundation, etc.), conference fees (which can be rather hefty) charged to participants, and grants from interested commercial parties. For example, a company that makes microscopes might kick in some money for a biology conference. They may also be represented in the part of the conference where private companies (or institutions with a product) can set up booths (that they pay for), like a trade conference.

Those private companies may well have an interest in the outcome of the research being performed by the various scientists who attend the conference. Maybe they want to sell the scientists a gadget to use in their lab. Maybe they want to use the research to advance their corporate mission, such as better ways to produce or deliver a product. Most of the time they probably just want people to like them, or to recognize their names.

So far, there is not much wrong with that, either.

Corporate Funding of the Research Endeavor: Bad

But sometimes private corporations have different kind of interest. They don’t just want to get more information and knowledge about the areas where science overlaps with their corporate mission. They don’t just want to be seriously considered as a source for some matériel or equipment that scientists use. What some corporations want to do, sometimes, is to influence the outcome of scientific research, for their own interests, in ways that require that the science itself be adulterated in some substantial way. They want to see the dissemination of results that may be bogus but that serves their financial interests, or they may want to repress results that would lead policy makers, legislatures, the public, or the scientific community, to criticize, eschew, or even stop one or more of their profitable activities.

This is a sufficiently important problem that one of the largest (possibly the largest, depending on how one defines things) scientific organizations related to the study of Planet Earth, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), has a policy about this. As part of their “organizational support policy,” the AGU says,

AGU will not accept funding from organizational partners that promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science.

Organizational partners are defined as those that make an annual financial commitment to AGU
of $5,000 or more.

Why not accept the money? Doesn’t it make sense to take the money and then have lots of money and stuff, and ignore the wishes of potentially nefarious actors in this game?

I knew a guy once, only barely (a friend of the father of a friend). He was a major research scientist at a major institution, and he invented a technology for seeing things that are very small, which had applications in a wide range of research and praxis, including materials science and medicine. But his methodology involved the development of technology that one might use to make a terrible but effective weapon. He received a lot of his funding from those who might fund such things, and this allowed him to do his work without having to spend much money on grant proposals. But, he claimed (in his retirement), he never intended his work to be used to make a terrible weapon. Furthermore, he knew, privately, from his own research that it never could be. What he was doing would simply not work in that context. But he never mentioned that to his funders. He just took the money, and used it to save lives.

Well, one of the reasons one might not want to take money from sources with nefarious intent (and here we assume developing a terrible weapon is nefarious, though one could argue differently, I suppose) without ever advancing said nefarious goal, is that it is actually unethical. But one could counter argue that the savings of lives and advancement of civilization and such outweighs the ethics, or more exactly, that it is appropriate to develop situational ethics.

That is an extreme example, but in some ways, parallel to what a major organization like the AGU would be doing if they knowingly accepted money from major corporations who intended to encourage, develop, disseminate, or otherwise use for their own interests any kind of fake science or anti-science. Why not take the money and run? Partly, one assumes, because it isn’t exactly kosher.

Another reason is that if one takes anti-science money, one may end up advancing anti-science agendas even if one does not want to. The very fact that an anti-science entity (a corporation or foundation funded by a corporation) funds a major legit conference is a way of saying that the corporation itself is legit. It is a way that a scientific organization can advance anti-science even if it doesn’t want to.

Scientist Tell AGU To Drop Exxon Sponsorship

You all know about the Exxon maneno. Exxon, aka ExxonMobil, has recently been exposed as having repressed scientific information that indicated that we, our species, would ultimately need to change our energy systems in order to keep fossil fuels in the ground, else face dire consequences. Decades ago, when the science already indicated that this was a problem, Exxon independently verified that we needed to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, then shut up about it, because it was, and is, in their corporate interest to take the fossil fuel out of the ground.

I wrote about the Exxon kerfuffle back when it first broke, here. In that post, I provided a thumb-suck analysis comparing what Exxon knew about climate change then, and what the IPCC and NASA know about it now. They are pretty much the same, with respect to global surface warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gas pollution from burning fossil fuels such as those extracted and sold by Exxon.

Over a month ago, scientists Ploy Achakulwisut, Ben Scandella, Britta Voss asked the question, “Why is the largest Earth science conference still sponsored by Exxon?” They noted,

The impacts of Exxon’s tactics have been devastating. Thanks in part to Exxon, the American public remains confused and polarized about climate change. Thanks in part to Exxon, climate science-denying Republicans in Congress and lobby groups operating at the state level remain a major obstacle to U.S. efforts to mitigate climate change.

And thanks in no small part to Exxon, climate action has been delayed at the global level; as the international community began to consider curbing greenhouse gas emissions with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, Exxon orchestrated and funded anti-Kyoto campaigns, including participation in the Global Climate Coalition. The latter was so successful at shifting debate that the George W. Bush administration credited it with playing a key role in its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol.

So, now there is a letter signed by many top scientists asking the American Geophysical Union to make ExxonMobile an Ex-contributor to the conference. According to the Natural History Museum,

more than 100 geoscientists sent the following letter to the President of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) – the world’s largest association of Earth scientists – urging the association to end its sponsorship deal with ExxonMobil. The oil giant is currently under investigation by the New York and California Attorneys General for its long history of climate denial campaigns.

Many notable scientists have signed on, including the former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies James E. Hansen, the former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Harvard Professor James J. McCarthy, Harvard Professor and author of Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes, and Michael Mann– Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

The letter is the most recent example of a growing trend of scientists stepping out of their traditional roles to urge science institutions to cut ties to fossil fuel companies.

As part of the press release announcing this letter, Michael Mann (author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, and Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change) noted, “While I recognize that it is a contentious matter within the diverse AGU community, I just don’t see how we can, in good conscience, continue to accept contributions from a company that has spent millions of dollars over several decades funding bad faith attacks on scientists within our community whose scientific findings happen to be inconvenient for fossil fuel interests.”

InsideClimateNews has a timeline of what happened with Exxon, here.

AGU’s president, Margaret Leinen, wrote on the AGU’s blog, that “The AGU Board of Directors will take up the questions raised in this letter at their upcoming meeting in April, and prior to that will carefully review the information that has been provided, and any additional information that becomes available in the meantime. We will consult with our various member constituencies as well other stakeholders prior to the Board meeting. In addition, the Board will look more deeply into the question of what constitutes verifiable information about current activities.”

InsideClimateNews notes that this campaign “…is part of a growing trend of scientists’ protesting efforts by fossil fuel companies to undermine climate science. Last year, for instance, dozens of researchers urged Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History in New York to cut ties with David Koch of Koch Industries.” See this post at InsideClimateNews for more information about the Exxon-AGU problem, and the broader movement.

As I noted at the beginning, this is all about the honest conversation. I’ve talked about this before. So often, the conversation, usually public and policy-related, is not about the science at all, but about other things, and the science itself gets thrown under the bus. My understanding (limited, I know) of the criminal justice system is that if a prosecutor knows about exculpatory evidence, they are required to provide it to the court or defense, thus possibly negatively affecting their own chance of success, but at the same time, doing the right thing. One would think that in science, institutions or individuals who know about evidence important in understanding some scientific problem, that they are ethically obligated to make that information available with reasonable alacrity. If all those involved in the large scale and complex conversations about climate change and energy had as a central ethical theme a commitment to accuracy, openness, and to the process of mutual aid in advancing our understanding of the topics at hand, it wouldn’t matter who gave money to whom, because that money would not be linked to efforts to repress knowledge or to produce and disseminate misinformation.

And, certainly, such corporations should not be attacking the science or the scientists, or funding other organizations that do. Contributing to a valid scientific organization like the AGU does not make up for such behavior.

Had that been the way things worked fifty years ago, by now, Exxon-Mobile and other fossil fuel companies would have shifted their corporate activities away from fossil fuels. They would be phasing out coal, oil, and natural gas, and developing clean energy solutions. They would not have stuck themselves with vast stranded assets that they now have a corporate responsibility, no matter how immoral or antiscientific, to develop. There is an idea that corporations are primarily responsible to their stockholders, and this widely accepted but highly questionable “ethic” has been applied to justify, it seems, a significant departure from the pursuit of knowledge and the application of that knowledge to managing human problems and protecting our precious planet. This is a fundamental flaw in how we do things, and it is the reason AGU has to but the “ex” in Exxon as a sponsor.

Scientists’ Letter to the American Geophysical Union

Here is the letter:

Dear Dr. Margaret Leinen,

We, the undersigned members of AGU (and other concerned geoscientists), write to ask you to please reconsider ExxonMobil’s sponsorship of the AGU Fall Meetings.

As Earth scientists, we are deeply troubled by the well-documented complicity of ExxonMobil in climate denial and misinformation. For example, recent investigative journalism has shed light on the fact that Exxon, informed by their in-house scientists, has known about the devastating global warming effects of fossil fuel burning since the late 1970s, but spent the next decades funding misinformation campaigns to confuse the public, slander scientists, and sabotage science – the very science conducted by thousands of AGU members. Even today, Exxon continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group that routinely misrepresents climate science to US state legislators and attempts to block pro-renewable energy policies. Just last year, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson downplayed the validity of climate models and the value of renewable energy policies.

The impacts of Exxon’s tactics have been devastating. Thanks in part to Exxon, the American public remains confused and polarized about climate change. And thanks in part to Exxon, climate science-denying members of Congress and lobby groups operating at the state level remain a major obstacle to US efforts to mitigate climate change.

The research disciplines of Earth sciences conducted by AGU members are diverse, but they are united by their shared value of truthfulness. AGU states that its mission and core values are to “promote discovery in Earth science for the benefit of humanity” and for “a sustainable future.” Indeed, AGU has established a long history of scientific excellence with its peer-reviewed publications and conferences, as well as a strong position statement on the urgency of climate action, and we’re proud to be included among its members.

But by allowing Exxon to appropriate AGU’s institutional social license to help legitimize the company’s climate misinformation, AGU is undermining its stated values as well as the work of many of its own members. The Union’s own Organizational Support Policy specifically states that “AGU will not accept funding from organizational partners that promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science.” We believe that in fully and transparently assessing sponsors on a case-by-case basis, AGU will determine that some, including ExxonMobil, do not meet the standards of this policy. We therefore call on you as the President of AGU to protect the integrity of climate science by rejecting the sponsorship of future AGU conferences by corporations complicit in climate misinformation, starting with ExxonMobil.

While we recognize that some of AGU’s scientific disciplines are deeply tied to the fossil fuel industry, we are also increasingly aware of the tension within our community regarding how we should respond to the urgency of climate change as individual scientists and as institutions. It is time to bring this tension into the light and determine how an organization such as AGU should approach the major challenges of today to ensure that we truly are working for the benefit of humanity. In particular, as the world’s largest organization of Earth scientists, if we do not take an active stand against climate misinformation now, when will we?

Yours respectfully,

AGU members:

Robert R. Bidigare, PhD, AGU Fellow, University of Hawaii

Cecilia Bitz, Professor, University of Washington

David Burdige, Professor and Eminent Scholar, Old Dominion University

Kerry Emanuel, Professor, MIT

Peter Frumhoff, PhD, Director of Science and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists

Richard H. Gammon, Professor Emeritus, University of Washington

Catherine Gautier, Professor Emerita, University of California Santa Barbara

Charles Greene, Professor, Cornell University

James E. Hansen, Adjunct Professor, Columbia University

Charles Harvey, Professor, MIT

Roger Hooke, Research Professor, University of Maine

Mark Z. Jacobson, Professor, Stanford University

Dan Jaffe, Professor and Chair, University of Washington Bothell

Michael C. MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs, Climate Institute

Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor, Penn State University

James J. McCarthy, Professor, Harvard University

James Murray, Professor, University of Washington

Naomi Oreskes, Professor, Harvard University

Nathan Phillips, Professor, Boston University

Christopher Rapley, CBE, Professor, University College London

Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of California San Diego

Pattanun Achakulwisut, PhD Student, Harvard University

Becky Alexander, Associate Professor, University of Washington

Theodore Barnhart, PhD Student, University of Colorado/INSTAAR

Yanina Barrera, PhD Student, Harvard University

Dino Bellugi, PhD Candidate, University of California Berkeley

Jo Browse, Postdoctoral Research, University of Leeds, UK

Adam Campbell, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Otago

Chawalit Charoenpong, PhD Student, MIT/WHOI Joint Program

Sarah Crump, PhD Student, University of Colorado Boulder

Daniel Czizco, Associate Professor, MIT

Katherine Dagon, PhD Student, Harvard University

Suzane Simoes de Sá, PhD Student, Harvard University

Michael Diamond, PhD Student, University of Washington

Kyle Delwiche, PhD Student, MIT

Sarah Doherty, Associate Professor, University of Washington

Liz Drenkard, Postdoctoral Researcher, Rutgers University

Emily V. Fischer, Assistant Professor

Priya Ganguli, Postdoctoral Fellow

Gretchen Goldman, PhD, Lead Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

Meagan Gonneea, Postdoc

Jordon Hemingway, PhD Student, MIT/WHOI Joint Program

Hannah Horowitz, PhD Student, Harvard University

Irene Hu, PhD student, MIT

Lu Hu, Postdoctoral Researcher, Harvard University

Eric Leibensperger, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Plattsburgh

Marena Lin, PhD Student, Harvard University

Simon J. Lock, PhD Student, Harvard University

Andrew McDonnell, Assistant Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Bruce Monger, Senior Lecturer, Cornell University

Daniel Ohnemus, Postdoctoral Researcher, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Morgan O’Neill, Postdoctoral Fellow, Weizmann Institute of Science

Cruz Ortiz Jr., PhD Student, University of California Santa Barbara

Jonathan Petters, Research Fellow, University of California Santa Cruz

Allison Pfeiffer, PhD Student, University of California Santa Cruz

James L. Powell, PhD

Christina M. Richardson, MS Student, University of Hawaii Manoa

Ignatius Rigor, Senior Principal Research Scientist, University of Washington

Paul Richardson, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oregon

Erica Rosenblum, PhD Student, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Ben Scandella, PhD Student, MIT

Neesha Schnepf, PhD Student, University of Colorado at Boulder/CIRES

Amos P. K. Tai, Assistant Professor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Robert Tardif, Research Scientist

Katherine Travis, PhD Student, Harvard University

Britta Voss, Postdoctoral Fellow

Andrew Wickert, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota

Kyle Young, Graduate Student, University of California Santa Cruz

Xu Yue, Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University

Emily Zakem, PhD Student, MIT

Cheryl Zurbrick, Postdoctoral Associate, MIT


Other concerned geoscientists:

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, CBE, Professor, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Helen Amos, Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University

Antara Banerjee, Postdoctoral Research Scientist

Emma Bertran, PhD Student, Harvard University

Skylar Bayer, PhD Student

Thomas Breider, Postdoctoral Researcher, Harvard University

Stella R. Brodzik, Software Engineer, University of Washington

BB Cael, PhD Student, MIT/WHOI Joint Program

Sophie Chu, PhD Student, MIT/WHOI Joint Program

Archana Dayalu, PhD Student, Harvard University

Gregory de Wet, PhD Student, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Christopher Fairless, PhD Student, University of Manchester, UK

Mara Freilich, PhD Student, MIT

Wiebke Frey, Research Associate, University of Manchester, UK

Nicolas Grisouard, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

Sydney Gunnarson, PhD Student, University of Iceland/University of Colorado Boulder

Sam Hardy, PhD Student, University of Manchester, UK

David Harning, PhD Student, University of Colorado Boulder

Sophie Haslett, PhD Student, University of Manchester, UK

Richard Hogen, Aerospace Thermodynamic Engineer, United Launch Alliance

Anjuli Jain, PhD Student, MIT

Harriet Lau, PhD Student, Harvard University

Cara Lauria, Masters Student, University of Colorado Boulder

Franziska Lechleitner, PhD Student, ETH Zu?rich

Michael S. Long, Research Scientist

John Marsham, Associate Professor, University of Leeds, UK

Catherine Scott, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Leeds, UK

Rohini Shivamoggi, PhD student, MIT

Victoria Smith, PhD, Instrument Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Science, University of Leeds, UK

Gail Spencer, Environmental Specialist, Washington Department of Ecology

Melissa Sulprizio, Scientific Programmer, Harvard University

Rachel White, Postdoctoral Associate, University of Washington

Leehi Yona, BA, Senior Fellow, Dartmouth College

Yanxu Zhang, Postdoctoral Researcher, Harvard University

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11 thoughts on “Putting the “Ex” in “Exxon”: AGU asked to dump big oil sponsorship

  1. The fraud investigation needs to be accelerated and prosecuted under RICO.

    There is pretty much no defense. Exxon knew that AGW was real, that it was happening, and that their products (fossil fuels) contributed to it, and this was a materially adverse consequence for Exxon’s long term business.

    They will have to settle, or the damages will destroy the company and zero-out shareholders’ equity.

  2. In the old days, AT&T funded Bell Labs. It still exists today, and I have no idea how it works now. I’m told by people who worked there back in the mid 20th century that it was a place where funding came in from the mother company to allow scientists to do more or less what they wanted to.

    They also funded a lot of fundamental research in mathematics – Graph Theory and applications to networks is still a big deal there (Ron Graham led a big research group).

    Now all the things that tea-baggers (cough RickA cough) would decide are useless are scaled way back.

  3. As an AGU member, I got an e-mail from AGU about this today. My interpretation is that AGU is aware of the problem, but there are procedures that need to be followed in order to take action. This is, admittedly, the company line, but I’d rather trust them than a source like WUWT, which is known to be unreliable (to put it mildly).

    I can see how the situation came about. Historically, and even today, the petroleum industry is a major source of industrial jobs for geophysicists. It makes sense for a company like Exxon-Mobil to sponsor the AGU in exchange for access to job seekers at AGU meetings. But AGU covers a much larger range of disciplines than are relevant to the petroleum industry, and one of those fields is atmospheric science–the specific field on which groups like Exxon-Mobil have been trying to cast doubt. The situation was tenable as long as Exxon-Mobil could plausibly deny that their internally funded research contradicted their public stance on the issue. But now we know that the C-suite was suppressing the results of their own research department.This puts AGU in an awkward position if they continue to accept Exxon-Mobil’s sponsorship.

  4. Greg: You all know about the Exxon maneno. Exxon, aka ExxonMobil, has recently been exposed as having repressed scientific information that indicated that we, our species, would ultimately need to change our energy systems in order to keep fossil fuels in the ground, else face dire consequences. Decades ago, when the science already indicated that this was a problem, Exxon independently verified that we needed to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, then shut up about it, because it was, and is, in their corporate interest to take the fossil fuel out of the ground. (Emphasis added.)

    As far as I’ve been able to determine, maneno is a word in either Malagasy or Swahili. In the former language it means “chirp” and in the latter “children” (plural of “neno”, child.)

    Unless there’s a slang meaning I didn’t discover, the use of the word here makes no sense to me.

  5. I am, by the way, delighted to find that among the signers of the letter to the AGU president is a scientist named Ignatius Rigor.

  6. Now where have I heard this narrative before?
    Oh yes, the Tobacco Companies.
    In the 1950’s, medical practitioners began warning of the dangers of smoking tobacco. The cigarette makers started questioning and attacking the sentries, and for years denied that tobacco was addictive and that smoking caused cancer.
    We now know that the tobacco companies carried out research in the 1960’s, hoping to refute the claims of harm, only for their own researchers to confirm it. What did they do? Come clean? Admit the truth? Look to make less dangerous alternatives?
    No, no, and no. They covered up their evidence, continued with their attacks on the researchers who found the truth, and lied repeatedly. In the end, they had to pay huge fines.
    This is no different from what Exxon did, and I hope they also get clobbered in the wallet.

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