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2015 SkS News Bulletin #2: Willie Soon & The Fossil Fuel Industry

Posted on 2 March 2015 by John Hartz

This bulletin inventories reactions to recent revelations made about Wiilie Soon's relationship with the fossil fuel industry while employed by the Smithsonian Institution at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

This bulletin also functions as a supplementary reading list to Dana's recently posted SkS article, Fossil fuel industry caught taking a page out of the tobacco playbook.

A Major Harvard Climate Change Denier Has Been Found to Be Dripping in Corporate Cash by Tom McKay, Science.Mic, Feb 22, 2015 

Climate Change Denier Wei-Hock Soon Mired In Controversy For Receiving Funds From Fossil Fuel Industry by Jim Algar, Tech Times, Feb 22, 2015

Climate Change Deniers Take Yet Another Hit by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones, Feb 22, 2015 

Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist Quietly Took Money From The Fossil Fuel Industry by Ryan Koronowski, Climate Progress, Feb 22, 2015

Climate Denyin' Scientist Willie Soon Says 'I'm Lovin' It'... by Brendan Montague, DeSmog Blog, Feb 23, 2015 

Climate skeptic’s fossil fuel funding puts spotlight on journal conflict policies by  

Climate Sceptic’s Fossil Fuel Funding Exposed by Andy Rowell, Oil Change International, Feb 23, 2014 

Contrarian Scientist Who Says Sun is Responsible for Global Warming is Accused of Taking Corporate Cash for Science by Tom Yulsman, Discover, Feb 21, 2015 

Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher by Justin Gillis & John Schwartz, New York Times, Feb 21, 2015

Documents Reveal Fossil Fuel Fingerprints on Contrarian Climate Research by David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News, Feb 21, 2015 

How Often Were Willie Soon’s Industry-Funded “Deliverables” Referenced by the IPCC? by Ben Jervy, DeSmog Blog, Feb 23, 2015

Leading climate change denier was paid by energy companies by Lizzie Plaugic, The Verge, Feb 22, 2015

No, the sun isn’t driving global warming by Chris Mooney, Energy & Environment, Washington Post, Feb 23, 2015

Senator Markey questions climate studies by Sylvan Lane, Boston Globe, Feb 22, 2015 

Work of prominent climate change denier was funded by energy industry by Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian, Feb 21, 2015

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Wiilie Soon's relationship with the fossil fuel industry while employed by the Smithsonian Institution at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    The Smithsonian policies are explicit: all fundings go the Insitute, not to individual scientists. Agreements are signed by its administration, not individual scienitsts. The Institue retains 40% of the grant amount for its administration.

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  2. There's something I don't get about Willie Soon. Even though he's received huge amounts in grants from oil companies, presumably he hasn't got rich off them, because scientists don't get rich even off large grants as pointed out elsewhere. So why is he taking the grants from oil, as oppose to the government grants he once received? What's the advantage? It only seems to undermine his credibility. Is it because he is incapable of getting public money due to the poor quality of his research? 

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  3. This is a very old thread, Long. Topal notes in comment #1 that all funds go to the Smithsonian, not individual scientists, but there are some catches to that.

    Some of the links in the post are dead, but the "Climate Sceptic’s Fossil Fuel Funding Exposed" page is alive, and at the bottom of that article there is a link to original documents.

    One of those documents is a 2008 contract between The Smithsonian and Southern Company Services Inc. The contract includes the proposal from Soon, and part of the proposal includes the items the money is to be spent on. That covers the following:

    • 494 hours of Soon's labour, valued at $25,209. (That would put Soon's salary for a 2000-hr work year at roughly $100,000).
    • Program administration
    • Secretary
    • Leave and Fringe benefits (i.e., overhead costs related to labour)
    • "Direct Operating Overhead @ 30%".
      • This would be Smithsonian's cut, to cover things like office space, etc.
    • Travel
    • "Printing and reproduction"

    The way I would interpret this is that at least part of Soon's salary at Smithsonian is (was?) not coming from general Smithsonian funds, but from grants and contracts that Soon pulls in. This is not uncommon, AFAIK.

    So, Soon's salary is (was?) probably fixed by his employment arrangements with the Smithsonian, but the Smithsonian gets off the hook for finding money to pay Soon - or at least, partly off the hook. Soon does not get rich by having a lot of contracts, but his continued employment at the Smithsonian would be made much easier by virtue of having industry cover his salary.

    ...and having grants or contracts to cover travel makes it a lot easier to participate in the contrarian talking road show. (The details in that contract cover travel to a "Scientific meeting, San Francisco". Possibly the AGU, at a guess?)

    I certainly would not argue against you in speculating that gas and  oil money will be a lot easier for Soon to get than regular government research grants.

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  4. I would say there's a certain perverse incentive built into the system enabling a certain level of bad research to get funded. Soon is a perfect example.

    As I sit here, the question occurs to me: Is there some inherent value to this kind of activity?

    I've always believed it's important to understand what doesn't work as much as what does work. Researchers are almost going to aggressively defend their work, good or bad. 

    I don't know. Is the noise their work generates more destructive than the bad science they produce? If so, maybe that's a problem with how information propogates in the public sphere, and how private interests utilize it, rather than an inherent problem with people like Soon producing bad science.

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  5. There are some other interesting tidbits in that contract between Smithsonian and Southern Company Services. A lot is just boilerplate put in by the lawyers, but it also lists deliverables:

    • progress reports
    • detailed summary and analysis of results and findings
    • ...and freedom for SCS to use the data and results "for its internal purposes"

    There is also a Publicity clause:

    Smithsonian shall not publish and utilize the name or otherwise identify SCS or its affiliate companies in any publications or other advertisements without the express written consent of SCS. As further consideration to SCS, Smithsonian shall provide SCS an advance written copy of proposed publications regarding the deliverables for comment and input, if any, from SCS.

    In one context, that simply gives SCS the right to review the results of the work to make sure that it meets their needs as "deliverables".

    In another context, it looks like SCS wants to keep the source of the funding secret, and wants to make sure that any results it does not like will not see the light of day.

    Most academic granting agencies will want their name spread far and wide as supporting research, and academic freedom allows researchers to publish and publicize their results regardless of outcome.

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  6. Thanks for this information Bob Loblaw. I realise its a very old thread but I wasn't sure how else to have a chance of finding an answer; I couldn't find another relevant thread and I'd read a lot of articles on the subject to no avail, probably because I don't have a great grasp of how these institutions work. I was asking due to a debate I was having with a climate skeptic. Again, I appreciate your time.

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  7. Long:

    Although this is an old thread, comments never close here at SkS - for just the reason that someone may want to discuss them again in the distant future.

    Institutions will differ; countries wll differ. Funding can be quite complex.

    My own experience in universities is within Canada, and from roughly 30 years ago. Times have changed. Academic positions will have rules that affect what sort of outside contracts a professor may hold - but expectations may differ even between departments in the same university.

    Where I was (Geography), outside contracts and external activities that took away from your research time were not looked upon all that favourably, but my understanding was that within some other departments - e.g. Engineering - that outside consulting work was essential to advance your career. If you weren't getting outside contracts for "real engineering" work, what good were you? At least in our academic environment your entire salary was typically covered by the university for the entire calendar year.

    My understanding was that many U.S. universities only paid a professor's salary during the school term, and you had to get outside funding that included salary dollars for yourself during the summer (non-teaching) periods. That could come from grants, etc.

    In Canada, major academic granting agencies would not allow grant money to go to the principal investigator's salary - but it could go to grad students or post-docs. In the U.S., grant money for your own salary was more or less expected. Institution claw-backs for "administrative overhead" could also vary, depending on the institution, the type of funding, etc.

    In the example above (comment #3), clearly part of the contract was going to Soon as salary - but there is no indication whether this is to cover his regular salary, or is an extra "perk". Either way, though, Soon benefited personally, directly from that contract.

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