Records show climate skeptic was funding magnet for Harvard-Smithsonian 

Source: Gayathri Vaidyanathan, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2015

News that Harvard astrophysicist and climate skeptic Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon received funding from energy companies has shed an unflattering light on the mutually beneficial relationship between Soon and his employer, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Emails between the astrophysics center and representatives of energy companies show that the center received significant percentages of Soon’s funding to cover its electricity, overheads and miscellaneous operating expenses. This is standard operating practice “not only at our institution, but at other institutions,” said Christine Pulliam, public affairs specialist at the center, in a phone interview.

But the astrophysics center’s other practices are not standard procedure. At one point, the Harvard-Smithsonian’s external affairs director emailed funders and got them to remove restrictions on the use of Soon’s funds. The institute then channeled the money into a discretionary fund controlled by the institute’s director, Charles Alcock.

In that case, 29 percent of the funds Soon received from Exxon Mobil Corp. in 2010 were transferred to the director’s spending account.

Such budget allocations reveal how Soon, a well-known climate skeptic whose studies have been vociferously challenged by the scientific community and media, has managed to retain his perch at one of the most prestigious American universities.

The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Climate Investigations Center, headed by the former Greenpeace activist Kert Davies.

Smithsonian asks for probe

Albert Horvath, acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has requested the Smithsonian’s inspector general to investigate the astrophysics center, according to a statement.

In the fallout precipitated by the emails, the Smithsonian sought to distance itself from Soon, whom it labeled a “part-time researcher” in a statement.

“He was hired to conduct research on long-term stellar and solar variability. The Smithsonian does not fund Dr. Soon; he pursues external grants to fund his research,” the Smithsonian said in a statement.

The institute was complicit in Soon’s securing such grants, writing actively to funders on his behalf, the emails show.

“We were aware that these grants were coming in, absolutely,” said Pulliam of the astrophysics center. The center overall receives more than $100 million annually in contracts and grants, she said.

Soon was not available to most media outlets seeking comment, but he is quoted on Breitbart, a conservative media outlet that does not believe in global warming, stating that the astrophysics center could not sack him since “he was also bringing in too much money.”

Gifts for salary and overhead

Over the years, Soon has received at least $273,611 from the American Petroleum Institute; $230,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation; $234,799 from Donors Trust, a think tank that advocates for limited government; $335,106 from Exxon Mobil; and $349,945 from Southern Co., according to information provided to ClimateWire by Davies in January.

In one case, Soon was awarded $60,003 from Southern Co., of which he received $24,693 as salary. The remaining was used for overhead by the astrophysics center.

The spotlight on Soon follows a ClimateWire story that found he and his co-authors had published a study that challenges climate models in the Chinese Science Bulletin. Soon did not declare his conflicts of interest to the journal editors in that study (ClimateWire, Jan. 23).

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said that he will be sending letters to energy companies, trade groups and others requesting details on the scientists they are funding on climate-related research.

“For years, fossil fuel interests and front groups have attacked climate scientists and legislation to cut carbon pollution using junk science and debunked arguments,” he said in a statement. “The American public deserve an honest debate that isn’t polluted by the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy.”