Over the weekend, The New York Times and The Guardian reported that the fossil fuel industry paid astrophysicist Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon $1.25 million in grants in exchange for 11 scientific papers that cast doubt on the role humans play in climate change. Soon never disclosed the grants from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, ExxonMobil, Southern Company, and American Petroleum Institute, while publishing research that blamed climate change on anything but pollution (Soon faulted the sun) and spun the impact as a net benefit for the environment (helping trees and polar bears thrive, according to Soon).
By itself, the revelation isn't likely to slow Soon's lucrative romp through GOP talking points. When the Boston Globe reported in 2013 that the same companies had contributed more than a million dollars to Soon's climate research, Republicans continued to cite his work and his double-barrelled affiliation with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Which is why two Democrats are launching investigations into the climate-change denial machine.
On Tuesday, Congressman Raúl Grijalva, Democratic ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, sent requests to seven universities that employ academics known to be partial to fossil fuel interests based on their testimony before Congress. Soon's ethical violations “might not be isolated incidents,” Grijalva warned Georgia Tech, MIT, Pepperdine, Arizona State, the University of Delaware, the University of Colorado, and the University of Alabama, naming specific scientists and asking about the sources of his or her outside funding. The goal of the investigation is to "establish the impartiality of climate research and policy recommendations," writes Grijalva. "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.”
Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts is launching his own investigation, requesting that the coal and oil companies involved in Soon's work disclose which climate change research they've funded. “For years, fossil fuel interests and front groups have attacked climate scientists and legislation to cut carbon pollution using junk science and debunked arguments,” Markey told the Globe. "The American public deserve an honest debate that isn’t polluted by the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy. That’s why I will be launching this investigation to see how widespread this denial-for-hire scheme stretches within the anti-climate action cabal.”
The reports about Soon's latest haul have sparked inquiries outside of Congress as well. Greenpeace has sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service, charging that the Charles G. Koch Foundation violated its tax status by providing a $65,000 grant which Soon used to influence legislation. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics issued a statement that the Smithsonian's Inspector General is conducting a “full review of Smithsonian ethics and disclosure policies governing the conduct of sponsored research to ensure they meet the highest standards."
Soon defended his actions to Breitbart, saying that it's common practice for researchers to accept outside grants from the industry. While it's true that scientists, at the Smithsonian and elsewhere, rely on outside grants—including from charitable organizations and companies—to fund their work, the problem is how Soon hides his funding, to the point of agreeing to a condition from Southern Company not to disclose their grant. "[P]eople need to know who is funding and who is supporting your research," Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University told Scientific American. "This goes to the core integrity of the scientific process." As Democrats push for more transparency, the investigations may force some moderate Republicans to back away from scientists directly linked to the oil and coal industries. But any impact on the larger public policy debate is likely to be a limited one. The GOP will soon (pun intended) be citing climate denier talking points again.