Sting on Scholars' Nondisclosure

Greenpeace investigation alleges that academic supporters of fossil fuels are willing to pen industry-friendly research for a fee.

December 9, 2015
 

Disclose, disclose, disclose. That’s the general axiom for academics submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals, which require authors to sign conflict-of-interest statements regarding funding sources and other potential influences. But while disclosure standards for peer-reviewed research are widely recognized by scholars and enforced by journals, who’s ethically policing other kinds of scholarly communication -- and do they need to be policed?

Those questions are at the heart of a new Greenpeace investigation that’s accused two academics of offering to write papers in support of -- and secretly funded by -- the fossil fuel industry. Both the the scholars, meanwhile, say their research was never compromised, and one alleges that Greenpeace is only targeting him for his unpopular views.

“I realize many people will not see the distinction between an opinion paper and an article in a professional journal, but [there] is a tremendous difference,” said Frank Clemente, a professor emeritus of sociology at Pennsylvania State University and a subject of Greenpeace’s investigation, in which members of the organization posed as representatives of the coal and oil industries to talk about partnering for white papers and opinion pieces. “The problem is Greenpeace just doesn't like my position on coal and will resort to all kinds of nefarious behavior to silence it.”

Both scholars in question -- Clemente and William Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at Princeton University -- said in email conversations with the undercover Greenpeace officers this fall that they’d be willing to write pro-fossil fuel papers for industry clients, provided those clients were comfortable with their research and views. The scholars did not agree to lend their names to industry-funded research, but rather to write position papers based on their existing research. The fictitious fossil fuel industry clients would then promote the papers to the media and otherwise circulate them to their benefit, ahead of the then-upcoming United Nations Paris Climate Conference.

Greenpeace on Tuesday released the emails with the scholars, in which they said there would be no need to disclose their funding sources.

Clemente, a sociologist, is known for his support of coal’s ability to improve quality of life, especially in developing nations. "Coal is crucial to the world's energy future," he told Inside Higher Ed. "In the next generation about 3 billion more people will be living in cities. Cities cannot be built at scale without coal. ...Clean coal technologies will not only unlock the full global value of coal for this unprecedented rise in urbanization but will also lead us to a cleaner environment."

Happer, meanwhile, has argued that carbon dioxide alone is not to blame for climate change.

“To be sure your client is not misled on my views, it is clear that there are real pollutants associated with the combustion of fossil fuels, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen for most of them, fly ash and heavy metals for coal, volatile organics for gasoline, etc.,” Happer wrote in an email to an undercover Greenpeace officer based in the United Kingdom. “I fully support regulations for cost-effective control of these real pollutants. But the Paris climate talks are based on the premise that CO2 itself is a pollutant. This is completely false. More CO2 will benefit the world. The only way to limit CO2 would be to stop using fossil fuels, which I think would be a profoundly immoral and irrational policy.”

After the Greenpeace officers said the scholars’ positions on fossil fuels were in line with their clients', they asked Clemente and Happer if they’d be able to sign their papers using their university affiliations -- but without disclosing any financial arrangement or potential conflict of interest. Clemente’s paper, for a fake firm specializing in business expansion into Asian markets, was supposed to counter “damaging studies on Indonesian coal deaths.” Happer’s paper, to be written for a separate, fictitious firm based in Beirut, was to highlight “the crucial role that oil and gas have to play in developing economies.” The undercover officers said their clients didn't want to reveal they were funding the papers, in order to give them more weight.

Both professors agreed and provided their typical service fees, about $250 per hour.

“I am full member of the graduate faculty here at Penn State so quoting me as professor emeritus at the university poses no difficulty whatsoever,” Clemente wrote in an October email. “I have little doubt we can publish the findings here in the U.S. There is no requirement to declare source funding in the U.S. My research and writing has been supported by government agencies, trade associations, the university and private companies and all has been published under the rubric of me as an independent scholar -- which I am.”

Happer said his activities to “push back against climate extremism are a labor of love,” and asked that any payment be directed to the CO2 Coalition, which he called a nonprofit educational organization that occasionally pays his travel expenses but no other fees or salary. Happer said the Peabody Coal Company he’d worked with in Minnesota regulatory hearings had paid him in this manner.

“If I write the paper alone, I don’t think there would be any problem stating that ‘the author received no financial compensation for this essay,’” Happer wrote. He also advised against submitting any paper for peer review in a traditional journal, saying that to do so “might greatly delay publication and might require such major changes in response to referees and to the journal editor that the article would no longer make the case that CO2 is a benefit, not a pollutant, as strongly as I would like, and presumably as strongly as your client would like.” (Happer also suggested that they might promote the paper as peer reviewed if it was viewed by other scientists prior to publication, though preferably not by a traditional peer-review process.)

The findings of the investigation aren’t as damning as, say, the recent investigations into the work of climate change skeptic Willie Soon, who was found to have not disclosed industry funding sources in a number of peer-reviewed journals while he was working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. That's because most newspapers and other media don't have the disclosure requirements of journals. Plus, the professors targeted by Greenpeace are retired.

But the findings nevertheless raise important questions in a time of increased interest in corporate-backed research, from the natural gas to agriculture industries. Earlier this year, for example, an investigation into the extent of University of Florida horticulturalist Kevin Folta’s ties to Monsanto led to him donate a previously undisclosed grant from the GMO giant to a campus food bank. (Folta maintains the organization never had any undue influence on his research.)

Greenpeace presents the results as damning to Happer and Clemente, saying, “The academics’ willingness to conceal the source of funding contrasts strongly with the ethics of journals such as Science, which states in its submission requirements that research ‘should be accompanied by clear disclosures from all authors of their affiliations, funding sources or financial holdings that might raise questions about possible sources of bias.’”

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and co-author of Merchants of Doubt, about challenges to scientific consensus on a number of major issues, including climate change, expressed similar views when approached by Inside Higher Ed.

“Of course disclosure is important,” she said. “White papers and reports get attention, and many people don't appreciate the [fine] distinctions of peer review.”

Happer, like Clemente, said he stood by his comments to Greenpeace. He said he only responded to the undercover officer's emails in the first place because he was interested in gaining more publicity for his long-held views. Happer pointed out that he'd never explicitly asked to be paid, and said in an early email that "I would be glad to try to help if my views, outlined in the attachments, are in line with those of your client." ​

A spokesman for Princeton said he had no comment on the Greenpeace investigation.

Lisa Powers, a spokesperson for Penn State, noted that Clemente is retired and no longer an active professor. When both current and retired faculty members make public comments, she said, they’re expressing their own views and not those of the university. Penn State does require faculty members to disclose potential conflicts of interest on an annual basis, she added.

Princeton’s Faculty Handbook says that members of the university making public comments outside their field are requested not to use the university’s name. And no one connected with the university is supposed to enter into an agreement with any firm or enterprise whereby the name “Princeton” is used in advertising or publicity.

Clemente stood by his views on coal and disclosure, saying that his research was never compromised and that he’d have had the same answers for Greenpeace if it had simply asked him the questions directly. Still, he said he worried about how such undercover investigations might impact future scientific research on potentially unpopular subjects.

“I am an old man and thus beyond their ugly reach,” he said. “But I worry about young scholars who have contrarian views and the chilling impact such behavior puts on them in terms of expressing their opinions.”

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