CU Researcher Raises Questions Surrounding Conflicts of Interest in Climate Research
Lax standards of conflict of interest disclosures among climate scientists create “unnecessary vulnerabilities” and should be avoided, according to University of Colorado, Boulder professor and political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr.
“You certainly don’t want advisors—scientific advisors—to have the perception, at a minimum that they’re receiving funding from those that they’re providing advice to,” Pielke told Western Wire.
Pielke says that, while the debates surrounding climate change have become highly polarized, it is important that both sides be held to the same standards of accountability when it comes to research.
“The importance of the climate issue doesn’t mean that we get to discard or ignore conventional standards of scientific integrity,” Pielke said.
“I think that the climate community has become so politicized that there’s this expectation that there’s good guys and bad guys, and if you’re asking questions about climate science you must be a bad guy, or you may be giving ammunition to the skeptics. So I think there is this natural tendency in that issue to push back against any and all criticism, full throttle,” he said.
Pielke pointed to Prof. Katharine Hayhoe, one of the lead authors of the just-released Fourth National Climate Assessment, who published an opinion piece in the Washington Post outlining the five myths about climate change she hears most frequently. In her first point, Hayhoe took issue with comments that climate scientists are “driven by the money they receive” by former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on CNN’s State of the Union.
Hayhoe said she would work in a different industry if money were a primary concern but stated that she does for-profit “climate-focused consulting” while she is not teaching. She is the Founder and CEO of ATMOS Research & Consulting, whose listed clients include the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Federal Highway Administration.
Hayhoe did not immediately return a Western Wire email seeking comment.
In response, Pielke said, “It wasn’t disclosed… It just creates unnecessary vulnerabilities for the national climate assessment.”
Pielke added that he has “catalogued a whole range of issues—from relying on Tom Steyer-funded research, to elevating the most extreme case, to having a review editor who used to be John Podesta’s chief climate advisor, now to the lead scientist having these undisclosed conflicts of interest. These are all things that should have been avoided.”
“It has nothing to do with the science of the report, the morality of Dr. Hayhoe… It’s just the expectation that climate science should play by the same rules as every other area of science,” Pielke added. “…if this was obesity research or smoking there’d be wide agreement that you shouldn’t have conflicts of interest.”
Policies governing conflicts of interest in scientific research are not uniform and can vary depending on which agency, group or coalition is overseeing the work, if the standards are in place at all.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), for instance, asks researchers for information regarding, “relevant organizational affiliations, government service, public statements and positions, research support, and additional information.”
The NAS disclosure form states that a “conflict of interest” relates to any interest that could impair objectivity or create an unfair advantage for a person or organization.
“They are not an assessment of one’s actual behavior or character, one’s ability to act objectively despite the conflicting interest, or one’s relative insensitivity to particular dollar amounts of specific assets because of one’s personal wealth… The individual, the committee, and the institution should not be placed in a situation where others could reasonably question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the committee simply because of the existence of conflicting interests,” the policy reads.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not have a policy in place until 2011, after concerns were raised about undisclosed business ties of former IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri. News reports at the time documented a variety of board posts and advising positions held by Pachauri in the banking, energy and sustainable investing sectors while he was acting chairman and oversaw the release of IPCC’s 2007 report. Pachauri maintains that he did not reap direct financial benefit from these services, as payments went to the Energy and Resources Institute, a research organization he founded.
“It’s untenable for a government advisory, scientific advisory committee, not to have a conflict of interest policy,” said Pielke. “[T]he reason we have these policies is to protect not just the individual but the integrity of the advisory process.”
Though Pachauri refused to step down from his position during the initial controversy, he resigned from his post in 2015 after allegations of sexual harassment were levied against him.
Pielke says that he’s not shocked that the conflict of interest process can break down. “The more surprising thing to me is the enormous pushback against the idea that these policies apply in this case.”
There are several factors that contribute to the appearance of differing standards on disclosure policy, according to Pielke, which include the polarization and politicization of the issue of climate change.
Previous research by Matthew Nisbet, a Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, shows that philanthropic funding on climate change issues has favored areas pertaining to communication, promotion of renewable energy and opposition to fossil fuels, while only a small amount has been invested in new-technologies to lower carbon emissions. Nisbet’s study analyzed grants made by wealthy foundations between 2011-2015 totaling more than half a billion dollars and found that only $10.5 million was invested in carbon capture storage or zero-emission-producing nuclear energy during that timeframe. Meanwhile, leading voices in the environmental activism space have become more extreme.
“One of the conclusions that I think is probably the most important from the Nisbet study is that there’s not a lot of support for intellectual diversity on the climate issue, which is a shame because what the world’s doing isn’t working,” Pielke previously told Western Wire. “So you’d think that there’d be at least some resources going into looking at new approaches, alternatives, even if they’re contingency plans.”
Pielke also says that there is an underlying sentiment that one side of the debate is inherently “good” while those questioning aspects of research and pushing for more stringent disclosure standards are “bad.”
“There are good conflicts and bad conflicts so if you’re getting money from oil and gas you’re obviously conflicted. If you’re getting money from wind and solar you’re not. But that’s not how it works,” Pielke said.
He also added that the area of climate science has not upheld standards applied to other areas of science for some time, “so we may have a generation of scholars who aren’t familiar with conflict of interest policies and their importance.”
Pielke has called climate change a “technology problem” and is an advocate for finding ways to make alternative energy sources cheaper rather than making fossil fuels prohibitively expensive. He is endorsing the “Green New Deal,” a policy floated by Congressional Democrats aimed at “transforming” the energy economy.
“Let’s let people see what it would take to actually eliminate fossil fuels in ten years. Because right now the debate about energy and climate is about symbols, it’s about tribalism,” said Pielke. “Let’s put this policy out there and I’m all for it. Let’s have hearings on it let’s have experts testify, let’s get cost estimates. Send it to GAO [Government Accountability Office], CBO [Congressional Budget Office] let’s see what it actually entails. Basically what I’m saying is let’s take it seriously.”