Climate crusader’s profitable link to Harvard exposed

Years of using a Harvard nameplate to flog his insistence that polar bears are doing fine, and that sunspots might explain planetary warming better than the Industrial Revolution does, may finally have caught up with Wei-Hock Soon.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

Soon, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, endured a barrage of news reports last week detailing his acceptance of US$1.2 million in support from energy companies and others hostile to government limits on fossil-fuel use.

In response, the Smithsonian Institution announced plans to investigate whether he had properly acknowledged his political alliances.

"We’re very concerned to get to the bottom of this, and make sure we have all the facts," W John Kress, the Smithsonian’s interim under secretary for science, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The investigation threatens serious repercussions for Soon, commonly known as Willie. But it may raise an equally tough question for Harvard University, the Smithsonian, and arrangements for their shared astrophysics observatory: How did the scientist trade on Harvard’s name to gain a leading role in climate politics?

In a series of scientific journal articles over the past decade, Soon has routinely listed himself as representing "the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics".

In turn, various reports describing his activities and beliefs – often published by organisations dedicated to opposing government regulations – have short-handed his identification to "Harvard scientist". Even The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student-run newspaper, has referred to him that way.

The problem, according to Charles R Alcock, a Harvard professor of astronomy who also serves as director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is that the "centre" refers primarily to a shared set of physical facilities. Almost everyone working at those facilities, Alcock said, is either an employee of Harvard or an employee of the Smithsonian, a federally administered collection of museums and research centres.

"From a legal point of view," he said, "there is no such entity as the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics." And Soon is employed only by the Smithsonian, Alcock said. "It’s always been that way. He has never had any Harvard appointment."

But confusion over Soon’s relationship with Harvard, even if it bolstered his profitable political alliances, may not be entirely or even primarily his responsibility.

One example is his email address: wsoon@cfa.harvard.edu.

Kress said that such shared identifications reflect the level of scientific partnership felt by Harvard and Smithsonian scientists, whose observatories merged facilities in 1972 (now four locations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and observatory facilities in Arizona and Hawaii).

He also acknowledged that the blurring might bring "more prestige" to his side of the alliance, in which 200 Harvard scientists are vastly outnumbered by about 700 Smithsonian counterparts. Either way, he said, the email domain is among the matters that the Smithsonian may now re-evaluate as a result of the disclosures about Soon.

Corporate benefactors

The institutions seem less open, however, to reconsidering the financial arrangements exposed by Soon’s activities. Last week’s revelations were based on records of internal Smithsonian email discussions provided under an open-records request to Greenpeace, the environmental-advocacy group, which supports restrictions on fossil-fuel use.

The records showed that Soon and the Smithsonian had received money from groups that included the energy conglomerate Southern Company, the Charles G Koch Foundation, and Donors Trust, a fund for anonymous contributions identified by a 2013 Drexel University study as the largest single provider of money to political efforts to fight climate change policy.

Alcock confirmed through a spokesperson that the donors disclosed by Greenpeace had provided Soon and the Smithsonian with a total of US$1.2 million over a period of 10 years. He also confirmed that, under standard observatory procedures, less than half of that amount was passed through to Soon as salary. Most was kept by the Smithsonian to cover facility operating costs.

Most Smithsonian researchers receive their compensation through such "soft money" payments rather than a salary from the institution, Kress said. But unlike Soon, most of those at the observatory draw funding heavily from government sources, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation, which in turn rely on peer-reviewed award processes.

In a typical year, the Smithsonian observatory receives about US$95 million in grant support, said Alcock’s spokesperson, Christine Pulliam. "Only a small fraction of 1 percent of that figure comes from corporate sources," she said.

At the same time, the Smithsonian has no policy requiring its researchers to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest in any scientific journal articles they produce.

Instead, its promised investigation of Soon will focus on whether he violated financial-disclosure requirements of the journals themselves. At least one of them, a Chinese journal called Science Bulletin, has promised its own review of the matter.

Before the issue of financial disclosure arose, the scientific quality of Soon’s published work had long attracted complaints from experts in the field. Gavin A Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has repeatedly accused Soon of vastly overstating the effect that variations in solar output might have on the earth’s warming climate.

Kress even admitted a lack of confidence in his own employee’s work. "Up until now, it has not been an issue of our scientists' not disclosing their sources of funding," he said.

"As far as we can see, up until just recently, that appeared to be the case with Willie Soon. He was publishing science. He may have interpreted his results in various ways, but the actual data and the results reflected his research, which, although I would say is not the highest-quality research, was research carried out in a scientific process."

Soon did not respond to requests for comment.

A Harvard University spokesperson, Jeff A Neal, provided a written statement saying the institution "takes the appropriate use, and the inappropriate misuse, of the university name very seriously. When made aware of a potential issue related to the misuse of the Harvard name, we communicate our expectations to the relevant individuals or organisations".

Asked if that applied to Soon or the Smithsonian, Neal said he would not discuss specific cases.

The roles played by both Harvard and the Smithsonian in burnishing Soon’s credentials and scientific authority are key to Soon’s saga, said Andrew J Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan. Hoffman is making plans to host a conference in May at his Ann Arbor campus on the risks and benefits for academic scientists participating in public-policy debates.

"Why is anyone even listening to him?" Hoffman said of Soon. "Because he’s got ‘Harvard’ after his name. Once you take that away, who is Willie Soon? He’s nobody."

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.