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June 11, 2015; The Guardian

Even if disclosures eat up a lot of space on a page, they are important for journalists. For scientists whose credibility sometimes rests on the probity of their donors, disclosure is doubly important. Dr. Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics may be in the process of learning the value of disclosure right now.

Soon is apparently a climate-change skeptic and, according to Suzanne Goldenberg in the Guardian, one “frequently held up as an authority by those who reject the underlying science behind climate change.”

Was Soon’s research compromised by his funding sources? According to the Guardian, Soon has received more than $1.2 million from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the Southern Company, and the Koch family. (Given that lineup, that’s no surprise.) He not only received the funding, but delivered research papers to a variety of professional or academic journals without disclosing his energy industry financial support. Additional funding came from anonymous donors, including contributions from the Donors Trust, which, too, has been strongly associated with the Koch brothers.

Moreover, the funding wasn’t simply among general support for Soon’s work. Soon actually corresponded with the energy companies and referred to his articles in the journals as “deliverables,” which indicates more funder sponsorship and expectation of the content of the articles than simply disinterested financial support for a Smithsonian-linked researcher.

The result is that Soon now faces multiple ethics investigations, including by the Smithsonian itself, due to the disclosures of his funding obtained through FOIA requests from the Climate Investigation Center. One journal, the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, announced that it amended a 2009 article of Soon’s to note his having been funded by an energy company. Other publishers of Soon’s work, including the National Academy of Sciences and Elsevier, have raised questions about Soon’s funding and lack of disclosure.

Dr. Soon and a prominent British climate change skeptic, Lord Christopher Monckton, seem to think that the disclosure responsibility should have been on the Smithsonian, not on Soon. “Stop bullying the blameless Dr. Soon,” Monckton is quoted to have said.

Sources of funding do affect scientific research. The studies are quite strong and consistent in showing how funding by pharmaceutical companies frequently leads to results that support their particular recommended products or treatments. It doesn’t mean that the research funded by corporate is automatically bad or dishonest, but the source of the funding does play a role in its credibility. According to Harvard science historian Naomi Orestes, “The issue is that the research is supported by a sponsor who wants a particular result…and the researchers know in advance what that outcome is, producing an explicit conflict of interest, which undermines the integrity of the research performed.”

We wouldn’t doubt that some of the funders of Soon’s research counted their funding as charitable or philanthropic contributions rather than as deals with Soon as a contractor. In science and philanthropy, disclosure is still important. When nonprofits fall all over themselves to congratulate foundations for this or that latest strategic feint, it is critical that the nonprofits reveal the extent of the grants they have received from the foundations in question. That allows readers to make a decision, whether the nonprofits are being sincere about their compliments about new foundation directions or simply signaling to their funders that they want to keep their toeholds in the gravy train.

Simple up-front disclosure would have helped Dr. Soon avoid the hornet’s nest of trouble he is getting right now.—Rick Cohen