Climate Etc.

Conflicts of interest in climate science

by Judith Curry

Once you tug on the thread of undisclosed financial interests in climate science, you’ll find it more a norm than exception. – Roger Pielke Jr (tweet)


I started working on this post last week, in response to the Willie Soon imbroglio.  This whole issue has now become personal.

In case you haven’t been following this, Justin Gillis broke the story on Willie Soon with this article  Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher.  The Smithsonian issued the following statement on the issue of Soon’s funding and apparent failure to disclose this funding in journal publications.   Science Magazine has a summary [here] and Nature has a summary [here].

The ‘plot’ thickened yesterday, as Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva (Democrat) Asks for Conflict-of-Interest Disclosures from GOP’s Go-To Climate Witnesses [link]. Excerpts:

The conflict-of-interest scandal involving a climate denier secretly funded by the fossil-fuel industry is spreading to other academics who oppose regulation of climate pollution. A top House Democrat has issued letters asking several researchers who have appeared as Republican witnesses before Congress questioning climate science to disclose their funding sources.

“I am hopeful that disclosure of a few key pieces of information will establish the impartiality of climate research and policy recommendations published in your institution’s name and assist me and my colleagues in making better law,” Grijalva wrote. “Companies with a direct financial interest in climate and air quality standards are funding environmental research that influences state and federal regulations and shapes public understanding of climate science. These conflicts should be clear to stakeholders, including policymakers who use scientific information to make decisions. My colleagues and I cannot perform our duties if research or testimony provided to us is influenced by undisclosed financial relationships.”

The letters request the institutions’ disclosure policies, drafts and communications relating to Congressional testimony, and sources of external funding for the academics in question.

The disclosure requests are needed because Congressional “truth in testimony” rules require witnesses to disclose government funding sources, but not private or corporate funding. Under Republican control, the rules are unevenly implemented, with not-for-profit witnesses required to submit pages of additional disclosures, while corporate-sector witnesses are not.

The seven academics who dispute  the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming who have been asked to disclose their funding are:

David Legates, John Christy, Judith Curry, Richard Lindzen, Robert Balling, Roger Pielke Jr., Steven Hayward.

A copy of the letter from Grijalva that was sent to President Peterson of Georgia Tech is [here].

An article in ClimateWire provides additional context [link].

Skip to JC reflections for my punch line.

Conflict in scientific publication

Conflict of interest related to industry funding is a very big issue in biomedical research (related to drug and food safety) and also related to environmental contaminants.  It isn’t a big issue in other scientific fields.  Apart from expecting scientists to describe funding sources in the Acknowledgements, many journals don’t even have any conflict of interest disclosure requirements.

For those journals that do have such requirements, the requirements for disclosure are vastly different.  As examples:

Nature:  In the interests of transparency and to help readers to form their own judgements of potential bias, Nature journals require authors to declare to the editors any competing financial interests in relation to the work described. The corresponding author is responsible for submitting a competing financial interests statement on behalf of all authors of the paper. Authors submitting their manuscripts using the journal’s online manuscript tracking system are required to make their declaration as part of this process and to specify the competing interests in cases where they exist.  The definition of conflict of interest relates to funding sources, employment, and personal financial interests.

Science:  Science goes further with this statement: Management/Advisory affiliations: Within the last 3 years, status as an officer, a member of the Board, or a member of an Advisory Committee of any entity engaged in activity related to the subject matter of this contribution. Please disclose the nature of these relationships and the financial arrangements. Within the last 3 years, receipt of consulting fees, honoraria, speaking fees, or expert testimony fees from entities that have a financial interest in the results and materials of this study. 

Wow.  I haven’t published anything in Science in recent years (and never as a first author).  So, all those scientists serving on Boards of green advocacy groups [Climate Scientists Joining Green Advocacy Groups] who publish in Science on any environmental or climate change topic should be declaring a conflict of interest.

So, once an author of a climate change paper declares a conflict of interest, what is that supposed to mean?  An article in Science Magazine addresses this issue:  Conflict-of-interest controversies are rare in her field, she notes, and “they can be tricky.” Conflict is often in the eye of the beholder, she says, and researchers often accept all kinds of funding that doesn’t necessarily skew their peer-reviewed publications. “I’m for full disclosure,” she says, “but I’m not sure how we’re going to address this.” The journal, published by Elsevier, asks authors to fill out a conflict-of-interest disclosure. But Strangeway admits he’s never carefully examined one—and isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do if he sees a red flag.  “We wouldn’t be raising the journal issue if [Soon] had simply disclosed Southern’s support,” he says.

Scientific journals are being alerted by watchdog groups to fossil fuel funding of contrarian climate studies [link].  Are we not to be concerned by fossil fuel funding of consensus climate science (there is plenty of that, see below)?  Are we not to be concerned by funding from green advocacy groups and scientists serving on the Boards of green advocacy groups?

DeSmog surprised me with this article:  How often were Willie Soon’s Industry-funded Deliverables Were Referenced by the IPCC?  I was surprised to find that published journal papers with ties to industry made it into the IPCC, to counter all those gray literature articles by Greenpeace et al.

So, in climate science, what is the point of conflict of interest disclosure?  Bishop Hill sums it up this way:

As far as I can see, the story is that Soon and three co-authors published a paper on climate sensitivity. At the same time (or perhaps in the past – this being a smear-job it’s hard to get at the facts) he was being funded  to do work on things like the solar influence on climate by people that greens feel are the baddies. They and the greens feel he should have disclosed that baddies were paying him to do stuff on a paper that was not funded by the baddies.

The issue is this.  The intense politicization of climate science makes bias more likely to be coming from political and ideological perspectives than from funding sources.  Unlike research related to food and drug safety and environmental contaminants,  most climate science is easily replicable using publicly available data sets and models.  So all this IMO is frankly a red herring in the field of climate science research.

Bottom line:  Scientists, pay attention to conflict of interest guidelines for journals to which you are submitting papers.  Select journals that have COI disclosure requirements that are consistent with your comfort level.

Conflict in Testimony

The HillHeat article provides links to the relevant testimony by the 7 individuals (see original article for actual links):

HOLD ON.  The article ‘forgot’ to reference my earlier testimony for the Democrats in 2006, 2007:

I can see that this earlier testimony is ‘inconvenient’ to their argument.

UPDATE:  HillHeat has updated their article to include my earlier testimony and additional testimony for Pielke and Christy

When you testify, you are required to include a financial disclosure related to your government funding.  Presumably this is relevant if you are testifying with relation to performance by a government agency.  There is no disclosure requirement that is relevant to individuals from industry or advocacy groups, or for scientists receiving funding from industry or advocacy groups.

To clarify my own funding, I have included the following statement of financial interests at the end of my testimony:

 Funding sources for Curry’s research have included NSF, NASA, NOAA, DOD and DOE. Recent contracts for CFAN include a DOE contract to develop extended range regional wind power forecasts and a DOD contract to predict extreme events associated with climate variability/change having implications for regional stability. CFAN contracts with private sector and other non-governmental organizations include energy and power companies, reinsurance companies, other weather service providers, NGOs and development banks. Specifically with regards to the energy and power companies, these contracts are for medium-range (days to weeks) forecasts of hurricane activity and landfall impacts. CFAN has one contract with an energy company that also includes medium-range forecasts of energy demand (temperature), hydropower generation, and wind power generation. CFAN has not received any funds from energy companies related to climate change or any topic related to this testimony.

I note that during congressional questioning, I was never asked anything about my funding sources.

Again, I think that biases in testimony related to climate change are more likely to be ideological and political than related to funding.

So what is the point of asking for detailed financial information (including travel) from these academic researchers?

Intimidation and harassment is certainly one reason that comes to mind.  Roger Pielke Jr seems to think this is the case, as described in his blog post I am Under Investigation:

I have no funding, declared or undeclared, with any fossil fuel company or interest. I never have. Representative Grijalva knows this too, because when I have testified before the US Congress, I have disclosed my funding and possible conflicts of interest. So I know with complete certainty that this investigation is a politically-motivated “witch hunt” designed to intimidate me (and others) and to smear my name.

The relevant issue to my mind is to expect non-normative testimony from academic researchers.  I discussed this issue on a previous blog post Congressional testimony and normative science.  Consensus climate scientists routinely present normative testimony, along the lines of ‘urgent mitigation action needed’.   On the other hand, I personally work to make my testimony non-normative, and I would judge Christy’s and Pielke Jr’s  testimony to be generally non-normative also (note Christy and Pielke Jr are the two on the list of 7 that I know best).

‘Dirty’ money?

The issue of concern of Congressman Grijalva is funding from the Koch brothers and fossil fuel companies somehow contaminating Congressional testimony from scientists invited by Republicans to testify.

The reality is that fossil fuel money is all over climate research, whether pro or con AGW.  Gifts of $100M+ have been made by oil companies to Stanford and Princeton.  Anthony Watts notes the prominence of oil companies in funding the American Geophysical Union [link]. The Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy take fossil fuel money [link]. The UKMetOffice has stated that energy companies are major customers.

NRO has an article Follow the Money, excerpt:

In truth, the overwhelming majority of climate-research funding comes from the federal government and left-wing foundations. And while the energy industry funds both sides of the climate debate, the government/foundation monies go only toward research that advances the warming regulatory agenda. With a clear public-policy outcome in mind, the government/foundation gravy train is a much greater threat to scientific integrity.

With federal research funding declining in many areas, academics at universities are being encouraged to obtain funding from industry.

I have to say I was pretty intrigued by Soon’s funding from the Southern Company.  Southern Company (SoCo) provides power to Georgia.  Georgia Power (a SoCo subsidiary) has provided considerable funding to Georgia Tech (although I have never received any).  For most of the time that I was Chair, the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences had an endowed Chair from Georgia Power.  When the faculty member left Georgia Tech, I chose not to hire a replacement, since I felt that my faculty hiring funds would be more productively used on younger faculty members in different research areas.  I also note that one of my faculty members received funds from Georgia Power that was a ‘charitable donation’, without overhead and without deliverables.  I also ‘heard’ that Southern Company/Georgia was very unhappy with the Webster et al. 2005 paper on hurricanes [link].   Note, I have received no funding from SoCo/GaPower.

JC reflections

My first reaction to this was to tweet:  Looks like I am next up in this ‘witch hunt’.  My subsequent reactions have been slowed by a massive headache (literally; cause and effect?)

It looks like it is ‘open season’ on anyone who deviates even slightly from the consensus.   The political motivations of all this are apparent from  Call Out The Climate Deniers.

It is much easier for a scientist just to ‘go along’ with the consensus.  In a recent interview, as yet unpublished, I was asked: I’ve seen some instances where you have been called a “denier” when it comes to climate change, I am just curious as to your opinion on that? My reply:

As a scientist, I am an independent thinker, and I draw my own conclusions about the evidence regarding climate change. My conclusions, particularly my assessments of high levels of uncertainty, differ from the ‘consensus’ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Why does this difference in my own assessment relative to the IPCC result in my being labeled a ‘denier’? Well, the political approach to motivate action on climate change has been to ‘speak consensus to power’, which seems to require marginalizing and denigrating anyone who disagrees. The collapse of the consensus regarding cholesterol and heart disease reminds us that for scientific progress to occur, scientists need to continually challenge and reassess the evidence and the conclusions drawn from the evidence.

Well, the burden is on Georgia Tech to come up with all of the requested info. Georgia Tech has a very stringent conflict of interest policy, and I have worked  closely in the past with the COI office to manage any conflicts related to my company.  Apart from using up valuable resources at Georgia Tech to respond to this, there is no burden on me.

Other than an emotional burden.  This is the first time I have been ‘attacked’ in a substantive way for doing my science honestly and speaking up about it.  Sure, anonymous bloggers go after me, but I have received no death threats via email, no dead rats delivered to my door step, etc.

I think Grijalva has made a really big mistake in doing this.  I am wondering on what authority Grijalva is demanding this information? He is ranking minority member of a committee before which I have never testified.  Do his colleagues in the Democratic Party support his actions?  Are they worried about backlash from the Republicans, in going after Democrat witnesses?

I don’t think anything good will come of this.  I anticipate that Grijalva will not find any kind of an undisclosed fossil fuel smoking gun from any of the 7 individuals under investigation.  There is already one really bad thing that has come of this – Roger Pielke Jr has stated:

The incessant attacks and smears are effective, no doubt, I have already shifted all of my academic work away from climate issues. I am simply not initiating any new research or papers on the topic and I have ring-fenced my slowly diminishing blogging on the subject. I am a full professor with tenure, so no one need worry about me — I’ll be just fine as there are plenty of interesting, research-able policy issues to occupy my time. But I can’t imagine the message being sent to younger scientists. Actually, I can: “when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”

Update:  I just remembered something interesting/entertaining.  Too bad Grijalva only requested my travel since 2007.  In 2006 I was on the ‘green circuit’, with numerous invites from green advocacy groups.  One trip is particularly notable, which was organized by the Wildlife Federation.  Peter Webster and I had an hour with then Governor Jeb Bush, and then another hour with then candidate Charlie Crist.

(the years have not been kind to any of us).  Following that meeting, we visited several different cities, where I and Joe Romm (!) gave a tag team presentation on the climate change problem and the solutions.

So I’m not sure how to ‘score’ this one; Wildlife Federation and Romm on one side, and Jeb Bush on the other side.  To those of you not following U.S. politics, Jeb Bush is a Republican candidate for President in the 2016 elections.