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Smithsonian investigates climate sceptic’s funding sources

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has launched an inquiry into one of its researchers, solar physicist and global warming sceptic Willie Soon, over claims that he and his institution received funds from the energy industry and a rightwing foundation.

The Smithsonian issued a statement saying it “is greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research” and “is taking immediate action to address the issue”.

The allegations were made following a Freedom of Information Act request for research contracts by Greenpeace, although the documents were released by the Climate Investigations Center in Virginia, a non-profit organisation that monitors opposition to mainstream climate science.

Among the documents are contracts, which date back to 2008, that specify “deliverables” such as published papers, conference presentations or other research, to funders, including Atlanta-based utility Southern Company and a conservative non-profit organisation called DonorsTrust based in Virginia.

The CfA has no explicit policy requiring its researchers to disclose funding sources when they publish, says director Charles Alcock, but they are expected to comply with journal rules, which typically require that authors report potential conflicts of interest.

“We want to get the facts straight,” says Alcock. “If there is evidence of failure to disclose, yes, we have a problem.”

He admits that the CfA’s signed a contract in 2008 with Southern agreeing to notify the company before disclosing it as the source of the funding.

Alcock says that was “a mistake” and the CfA “would not do that again.”

Soon has published several papers that disagree with the consensus of climate scientists. In 2003 he argued that recent warming is not unusual by historical standards.

Last month he and three colleagues published a paper in the Chinese journal Science Bulletin arguing that burning all recoverable fossil fuel reserves would result in little more than 2.2°C warming compared with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections of around 4° of warming with unabated fossil fuel use by 2100.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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