Tag Archives: Smithsonian

Should the Smithsonian and Other Museums Blow Off Big Fossil?

Let me start off by saying something you may not know. The big corporations and the 1%ers you have learned to hate fund many of the projects you’ve learned to love. I have not checked lately, but Murdoch and FOX corporation for several years in a row funded at a 50% or 60% level virtually all of the National Geographic specials produced. Major museums known for their great exhibits are often funded by the very corporations or individuals that the people who love those exhibits are (often justifiably) suspicious of. The great importance of private corporate or individual funding is also a factor for art museums, cultural entities like the Opera or Symphony, and of course, sports teams.

This is also true of educational institutions. You see this most obviously at schools of business or management. Say you want to visit the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. It is named after Curtis Carlson, who was Chair of the Carlson Companies (Radisson). Curt also owned TGI Fridays. You might park in the Toyota Parking lot. Perhaps you are going to a meeting at the Medtronic Dining Room followed by a lecture at the Honeywell Lecture Hall. Later, for entertainment you might catch a game at Target Field, or Target Center, or the Xcel Energy Center. Or perhaps you’ll visit the Opera or Symphony. While you are there, be sure to check out the Wall of Donors to see the numerous large companies (mostly Minnesota based) or wealthy individuals who make big donations there.

Well, OK, you probably already knew that large corporations and wealthy individuals are footing the bill for many of the trappings of our civilization, including educational enterprises, and ranging from academics to high culture to sports.

Lately there has been concern that the mix of large donors and missions of various institutions represents a conflict of interest, especially with regards to climate change and global warming.

We’ve seen the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as a conduit for moving money from Big Fossil (large corporations that depend, we presume, on the rejection of climate change science) to scientists who produce roundly criticized work used by climate change denialist in Congress (via the mechanism of Congressional testimony) to avoid implementing science-sound energy and environmental policies.

It has been argued that the David Koch human evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian inappropriately downplays the critical role of human caused climate change as a problem facing our species. The exhibit does mention future challenges, and a warming planet, but conveniently leaves off the anthropogenic part.

A couple of years back, the University of Minnesota bailed out of showing a documentary on the Mississippi River, which included quite a bit of material on pollution of the river caused by agriculture, allegedly because Big Ag interests pressured the administration. It has been suggested that was only one of several examples of The U bending to the agricultural industry.

Recently there has been a move to ask natural history museums to reduce or eliminate funding from Big Fossil, and to ask folks like the Kochs to not be on their boards of directors. This makes sense because of the potential conflict of interest, but it could also be a form of institutional suicide if the funding from those sources is both very important and irreplaceable.

How much of the science done by major academic institutions is influenced by funding? It makes sense, for example, for Big Ag to fund laboratories, graduate fellowships, and research at these institutions because they benefit from the training and research. But it might also make sense for Big Ag to influence what research is done, perhaps who gets the results, and most importantly perhaps, what research (or results) is NOT funded, or repressed. Same with Big Fossil. Same with Big Pharm. Same with Big Whatever.

And, of course, the same can be said of large museums. I can name one large museum (but I won’t) that totally avoids human evolution (but not necessarily evolution in general) because there are private donors who don’t think humans evolved. The aforementioned human evolution exhibit funded by Koch is probably a mild example of bias. I’ve seen a lot of human evolution exhibits, and so far the few that are quite willing to challenge visitors’ religious or other anti-science beliefs were entirely state funded, as far as I know.

I think it is appropriate to ask the Smithsonian to dump the Kochs and their ilk as donors and board members, because such stark request can form the core of an activist approach that could cause positive change. But I also think we need to recognize the difficult position these institutions are in. We need not only to tell them to change how they do things, but to suggest alternative approaches and facilitate those approaches. Big educational exhibits at museums should routinely be funded by public money, as many already are. Perhaps private donations should be funneled through third parties that are devoid of nefarious intentions and shady ties. One approach in the US might be to tie tax benefits to such a thing. You can get a tax benefit from donating to a museum to produce an exhibit, but you get a better tax benefit if you donate to the NSF or NIH museum exhibit and educational endowments, which are in turn distributed via the usual mechanism of carefully developed requests for proposals with peer review. That would let the Kochs have part of their cake and we (the citizens) get to eat the other part.

The way research, education, and public engagement is funded has become a problem. What do you think? How should we solve this problem?