Willie Soon Scandal: Topics for Smithsonian Inspector General

First, we have an idea for coming clean, a remedy…the illustrious Smithsonian Institution should sponsor free screenings nationwide of the upcoming theatrical film Merchants of Doubt, pay for school kids everywhere to go see it.  Maybe half a million dollars worth of screenings (see How Much Did Smithsonian Get below)

Here we update the plot…(with research by Cindy Baxter)

In the wake of this past weekend’s release of documents from our investigation and media attention around climate denier Dr. Willie Soon’s $1.25 million in payments from the fossil fuel industry, his employers, the Smithsonian Institution, launched an investigation by their Inspector General on Monday.

Remember, Willie Soon works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA as they call it) on the Smithsonian side of the building called the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. It helps to have that data when looking through the documents.

The documents we got from Smithsonian during our 5 year investigation definitely don’t contain the full record of correspondence between Soon, the Smithsonian and the corporate funders, but what we do have paints a very clear picture. Every time Dr. Soon made a proposal and then got a grant from the Koch Foundation, from ExxonMobil or Southern Company, CfA Director Alcock and his grants department staff were deeply involved in making it happen, crafting budgets, sending email, signing contracts and letters of thanks.

Willie Soon, the Smithsonian says in its announcement of the IG investigation, was “hired to conduct research on stellar and solar variability. The Smithsonian does not fund Dr. Soon; he pursues external grants to fund his research”

They continued “The Smithsonian does not support Dr Soon’s conclusions on climate change. The Smithsonian’s official statement on climate change, based on many decades of scientific research, points to human activities as a cause of global warming.”

The statement from the Smithsonian raises a number of questions that we hope the Inspector General will look into during his investigation.

From the documents we have received from the Smithsonian during the investigation, it is very clear that the Institute has worked hard to help him get his grants and benefitted from those grants through funding for overhead and staff time other than Dr. Soon.

Let’s start with the ExxonMobil grants.

In 2008, Soon writes to his colleagues at the Smithsonian, asking for help to “stretch” the proposal to ExxonMobil for $60,000.

“Any way you can help me stretch this proposal to maximize my work at SAO would be appreciated,” he wrote.

Two years later, in 2010, the Smithsonian’s “Advancement and External Affairs” officer, Amanda Preston, wrote to colleagues about the $76,106 ExxonMobil grant, of which Soon hadn’t managed to use all of for his project.

Preston talks about the $22,181 that was left over.

“On instruction from [CfA head] Charles Alcock, I asked ExxonMobil to allow us to reclassify that amount as an unrestricted contribution,” she writes.  They wanted to allow the money to be used for “general support” instead of what it was meant for, Willie Soon’s work.

Exxon eventually agrees the documents show.  This was Dr. Soon’s last grant from Exxon, so they probably could have cared less. In 2010, Exxon unceremoniously dropped Soon, telling him that budget priorities had changed.  But in a possible indication of how important the ExxonMobil grant was, and perhaps the naiveté of Ms. Preston, the letter is sent to ExxonMobil thanking them for permission to shift the money and then makes a final pitch to Exxon to support the CfA’s fine telescope program and its research goals including studying star and planet formation and the physics of dark matter.

Little did she know that Exxon is only interested in planets with oil in them and one kind of dark matter…”oil that is, black gold, Texas tea…” (sorry, the Beverley Hillbillies theme song came into my head…back to questions for the Smithsonian)

The Charles Koch grants

Alcock was also heavily involved in sealing Soon’s grant from the Charles G Koch Foundation in 2009, with the $65,000 check sent by the Koch Foundation to Alcock himself on 21 September, referring to a previous conversation and agreement between them.

The letter is addressed to Dr. Alcock and signed by Richard Fink himself, who some describe and Charles Koch’s right hand man.

These are just a couple of examples.

The Southern Company grants

This one is ongoing, and Dr Alcock has acknowledged to reporters that the clause that appears to stipulate a covert relationship is a problem.  Nature’s Jeff Tollefson writes:

The documents also illuminate the CfA’s role in the funding arrangements: in a contract signed in 2008 with Southern Company, a utility in Atlanta, Georgia, the CfA agreed to notify the company before disclosing it as the source of the funding. Alcock calls that “a mistake” and says that the CfA “would not do that again”.

We want to know if anyone at CfA has flagged that potential conflict of interest problem over the years?

We wonder if Smithsonian will query Southern Company officials about their understanding of the relationship and “deliverables”?

And finally the Donors Trust grants

These are also apparently a semi-covert deal.  Donors Trust is not acknowledged as a supporter in any published work of Dr. Soon’s. Yet he reports to them “deliverables” including published studies, similar to the ones he reports to Southern Company.

More problematic is the language in the letter from Whitney Ball of Donors Trust, (again, addressed to Charles Alcock) stipulating that the identity of the actual donor shall not be known by Dr. Soon or Harvard Smithsonian.

We ask, how can Willie Soon declare there is no conflict of interest in his published work when he doesn’t know what interests his anonymous donor indeed has?

How much did Smithsonian get out of the deal?

Willie Soon has remained quiet this week in the wake of all the publicity about him.  We know, from the Boston Globe’s attempts to talk with him in 2013, that the Smithsonian has banned him from doing interviews on the Harvard campus.

But he did speak to one person: his friend and climate denying blogger, James Delingpole, who mentioned his chat with Willie on Breitbart.com.

“I spoke to Soon last night. He told me that of course he receives private funding for his research: he has to because it’s his only way of making ends meet, especially since the Alarmist establishment launched its vendetta against him when, from 2009 onwards, he became more outspoken in his critiques of global warming theory.

“Harvard-Smithsonian strove to make his life harder and harder, first by banning him from working on anything even remotely connected with issues like climate change or CO2, then by moving his office away from the astrophysics department to a remote area Soon calls Siberia. What the faculty couldn’t quite do was actually sack Soon because it had no cause: he was producing too many quality papers, and he was also bringing in too much money (40 per cent of which goes straight into the faculty coffers).”

While we need to take Soon’s comments to Delingpole with a grain of salt, second hand and paraphrased as they are, but if the Smithsonian did pocket 40 percent from his grants that Soon claims, that would mean the Institute has managed to get $500,000 from the fossil fuel industry – through Willie Soon’s grants – to help run its operations over the past 14 years or so.  We wonder how much research money other astronomers bring in at Harvard-Smithsonian.

So while they have distanced itself from Soon’s climate denial, the Smithsonian has clearly been very happy to take big chunks of the money the fossil fuel industry funds him to do it, through their institution, and has bent over backwards to help him get those grants.

The API grants

We have questions about this relationship which goes quite a ways back to 1994 but ended in 2007.  We did not get all the data on those grants from Smithsonian. Sallie Baliunas, who was Soon’s mentor at CfA, a fellow climate denier and ozone hole denier before that, acknowledged grants from Electric Power Research Institute, American Petroleum Institute, Mobil Foundation, Texaco Foundation in a December 1996 paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.  Proud transparency.  The dollar figures and terms of those contracts may never surface, but if the Smithsonian wanted to, I bet they could release the records they have of Baliunas’ funders too and come clean.

The Smithsonian takes a lot of corporate money. There is the Koch Hall of Origins anthropology exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.  They renamed the Air and Space museum theater, Lockheed Martin theater, erasing the name Langley, an daviation pioneer. The museums newly renovated Hall of Oceans might have been called the American Petroleum Institute Hall of Oceans if not for the intervention of Sen. Leahy of Vermont and another corporate philanthropist, Roger Sant, then chair of the Smithsonian board and an energy industry millionaire.

But this funding to Soon (and Baliunas before him) is different still.

Another question…what is the total amount of fossil fuel funding that has come to Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics over the years for climate change denial?

What is the total from API from 1994-2007…a long stretch of support?

Soon’s use of the Harvard-Smithsonian affiliation to advance climate denial

We have still more questions that we hope the Inspector General can ask – about Soon’s use of his affiliation with Harvard and Smithsonian.

While he now prefaces most of his denier presentations with a caveat about how he is presenting in his personal capacity, that’s not the case when it comes to his “scientific” papers that have nothing to do with astrophysics, or the sun’s connection with climate change, nor anything else the Smithsonian says he works on while at the CfA.

If you want to get credibility for your pseudo-scientific, climate-denying papers, using the moniker of an institution that has the words “Harvard” and “Smithsonian” is a very good way to do it.  It’s this affiliation that has gained Soon so much credibility in denier circles, for so many years.

The most recent example was his co-authorship of the flawed paper published in Science Bulletin last month that questioned IPCC models. This paper has no acknowledgement of any of Soon’s fossil fuel industry funding, but it does have Soon’s Harvard-Smithsonian CfA affiliation next to his name on the paper.  Meanwhile, co-author Monckton can’t stop saying that none of the authors got paid for the study, essentially doing it on their own time.  Then shouldn’t it say, Willie Soon, citizen of Boston?  That would work.

If the CfA is really trying to distance itself from Soon’s climate denial, and if Soon really does write these papers in his own time, what on earth is the CfA’s name doing next to Soon’s in all these papers? 

In an op-ed at the Wall St. Journal from 2011, written with Paul Driessen, another climate denier and not a scientist, Willie Soon’s byline is listed: Mr. Soon, a natural scientist at Harvard, is an expert on mercury and public health issues. Clearly that is inaccurate, yet Harvard has taken no apparent action to correct this.  Has Smithsonian?

Has there been any communication of concern between Harvard and Smithsonian about Soon through the years?

Soon has used the Institution’s name on a number of other papers that have nothing to do with sun climate connections: from his 2003 paper supposedly debunking the Hockey Stick, to the 2007 polar bear paper, to one published last year that supposedly “debunks” the groundbreaking study by Cook et al that showed a 97% consensus amongst climate scientists that humans are causing the climate to change.

None of these papers are written based on Soon’s qualifications as an aerospace engineer (as Justin Gillis points out in the New York Times: Soon is not a climate scientist). They are way outside of his area of expertise. He is not a polar bear biologist, not a mercury expert.

Does Harvard or Smithsonian routinely let their scientists wander like this?  Could a marine biologist pen an article about ancient Egypt and sign as a “Smithsonian scientist”?  Could a Harvard Chinese history professor write about Obamacare and sign the article “Harvard healthcare expert”?  Surely there are rules…

Hopefully the Inspector General can answer these and more questions

Posted by Kert Davies