Cash for comments: The public has a right to know

“In 1954 the tobacco industry paid to publish the ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’ in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives”—so reads the opening paragraph of a recent peer-reviewed paper on the history of how Big Tobacco “played dirty” by injecting lavish amounts of money into a public-relations campaign aimed at undermining the scientific evidence linking tobacco smoke to adverse health impacts.

Science and vested interests

There is considerable evidence that a similar playbook is being followed by fossil fuel interests in their campaign against the well-established scientific fact that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions associated with human economic activity. 

An important element of the tobacco industry’s activities involved the recruitment of medical scientists who, in direct exchange for cash or through indirect funding, would downplay the harms from tobacco in public. Those activities are described in encyclopedic detail in Robert Proctor’s book Golden Holocaust.

The sources and targets of money that flows into the scientific process must therefore be of considerable public interest. It is not surprising that the recent events surrounding Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist affiliated with the Smithsonian and Harvard University, have caused such a stir.

In addition to astrophysics, Dr. Soon proclaims expertise in climate science, although his work has not withstood scientific scrutiny. He is also an “expert” on polar bears who has accused the U.S. Geological Survey of being “unscientific.” He also claims expertise on mercury poisoning, having used the Wall Street Journal as a platform to assuage fears about mercury-contaminated fish because, after all, “mercury has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment.”  

Is there a common thread behind astrophysics, polar bears, climate, and mercury in fish? The New York Times has revealed it to be funding from the fossil fuel industry. If you are wondering about the mercury in fish, remember that coal-fired power plants emit loads of mercury.

Dr. Soon has apparently failed to disclose this funding in many of his publications, in seeming violation of the journals’ policies. Dr. Soon also denied receiving funding from vested interests during U.S. Congressional testimony in 2003. 

I believe that this recent high-profile case, and the history of interventions by vested interests, illustrates the importance of complete funding disclosures by scientists when they publish, present, or testify about their research. 

Declaring funding

This brings us to the recent requests for disclosure of funding that Congressman Grijalva issued to a number of scientists who have testified in front of Congress, including Dr. Pielke Jr. and Dr. Curry. 

I cannot find fault with this request. Seeking confirmation of funding is not a “witch hunt.” It is in the public’s interest to know who has funded the research underlying an expert’s testimony to Congress.

I was initially concerned that the Congressman’s requests for disclosure seemingly went beyond funding-related documents, thereby straying uncomfortably close to potential harassment, which I have opposed in the past and which I continue to oppose irrespective of the identity of the source and target.

I was therefore sympathetic to scientific voices who objected to Congressman Grijalva’s requests on those grounds. Fortunately, it has now become clear that the Congressman’s requests pertain to sources of funding only and he has qualified his request for correspondence, which several scientific organizations have—rightly, in my view—considered to be an over-reach. 

Congressman Grijalva is to be commended for his responsiveness, which contrasts favourably with the unwillingness of other politicians to discontinue their witch hunts of climate scientists.

In my view, his request for funding sources is sound and very much in the public interest.