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?
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