by Judith Curry
But when I queried them on various sources of funding – private, industry, government – they deemed all of the sources as suspect. – Dave Verardo
In the past several months, we have had several posts on scientists’ conflicts of interest, and possible biases from funding sources:
- Conflicts of interest in climate science
- Is federal funding biasing climate research?
- Industry funding and bias
- On the social contract between science and society
- Industry funding: witch hunts
Industry funding has been the big ‘villain’; notably oil companies and Monsanto.
In recent weeks, several new perspectives on this issue has come to my attention.
On Steve McIntyre’s post Shukla’s Gold, Dave Verardo made several comments. If you don’t know who Dave Verardo is, he is Program Manager for NSF’s Paleoclimate Program. Besides a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences, he also has a J.D. He also teaches a course at George Mason University. I responded to Verardo’s comment at ClimateAudit suggesting that he contact me, to continue a dialogue we started at last years Workshop on the Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty. We spoke on the phone, discussing the Shukla issue as well as some broader ethical challenges faced by the climate community.
I was particularly struck by a comment he made regarding the perspectives from the undergraduates that he teaches at GMU. I asked him to elaborate via email:
About two years ago, I stumbled onto a surprising and disturbing perspective among some college students. In a class that I teach on science and policy to senior undergraduate science students, we were discussing a topical issue in science and policy. We were discussing the pros and cons of an issue when one student casually mentioned that she did not trust the science research because of the source of the funding. I asked the class if they agreed that the source makes a difference and they all replied that it did. But when I queried them on various sources of funding – private, industry, government – they deemed all of the sources as suspect. Not just some students but all the students. I have repeated this line of inquiry to successive classes (now about 80 students over two years) and the results are the same.
This lack of confidence in our science infrastructure, to the extent that it exists, seems largely self-inflicted. If some people are pushing others to follow a predetermined scripts in support of some larger perceived good, this is counter to the foundation of scientific inquiry which is all about pushing knowledge beyond societal comfort zones. There are many historical examples of such behavior and its damage to understanding and to people.
The way to reverse course and to restore trust seems to be to shine a light on bad conduct when it occurs, follow through with substantive corrective action, and for individuals to just say no to going along as part of their own personal integrity.
Sure, there are serious pressures at play in science such as funding and the ubiquitous prestige issue but if people cave on an individual basis then institutions are doomed. If this is the case, then where does this leave us?
Scientist X – NASA
As an example of the serious pressures in play, also last week I received this email from a NASA scientist:
About 7 years ago, I was at a small meeting of NASA-affiliated scientists and was told by our top manager that he was told by his NASA boss that we should not try to publish papers contrary to the current global warming claims, because he (the NASA boss) would then have a headache countering the “undesirable” publicity. I inferred from this that the real problem was the large amount of funds NASA obtains from claims of dire climate change, and that suggestions to the contrary threatened those.
I witnessed similar reluctance for scientists at other organizations to publicly criticize modeling they deemed sloppy because even if they themselves were not at the forefront, they also benefited from the great amount of funds made available. So, it is not just those funded by environmentalists or dirty energy companies who have conflicts, but indeed all receiving government funds based on the great societal consequences of dire warming. It is still dangerous for me to say such things since I am still funded entirely through NASA.
In a follow up email, he identified the two NASA administrators – both people whom I know and like.
Recall 2007 – the year of the IPCC AR4, the Nobel Peace Prize goes to Al Gore and the IPCC, and the final years of George W. Bush’s administration. Perhaps this is all so institutionalized under the Obama administration, the issue of trying to publish a contrary paper doesn’t even come up?
Note, over the past five years I have received a number of emails from government scientists who will not pursue certain lines of research for fear of losing their jobs. I can only wonder how many others are out there who are afraid to speak up about this issue.
I don’t think the main problem is with the individual scientists (for the most part anyways); rather it is the institutions themselves (e.g. the administrators) that are a major part of the problem.
Program managers are trying to build the research budget $$ for their programs; some high profile research with favorable press helps. At higher levels, Divisional administrators are competing for budget dollars against the other Divisions; tying their research to a national policy priority helps in this competition. And on and on, up the institutional food chain.
We can’t fix the biases of individual researchers, although institutions can steer their research areas with funding carrots. I have no idea what it would take to fix any such problems at the major funding institutions; at NSF it would be relatively easy. NASA and especially NOAA are much bigger challenges.
Somewhere, sometime there needs to be a serious conversation about scientific bias caused by government research funding. I regard Dave Verardo as an important ally in seeking to improve the ethics and reduce bias in climate research.
Is contrary science to be relegated to the ‘gentlemen/women’ scientists that can afford to finance their own research? More and more we are seeing retired professors and wealthy individuals taking on contrary research. And of course, this raises the issue that industry funding of contrary research could actually be healthy for climate science.