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Climate: Is the science for sale?

By DAN WHIPPLE   |   April 25, 2005 at 7:02 PM   |   Comments

BOULDER, Colo., April 25 (UPI) -- The normal function of scientific research is to mine kernels of truth from piles of raw information and hypotheses, thereby advancing humanity's knowledge in the discipline involved.

At least that is how things are supposed to work. When it comes to global warming, however, that seldom seems to be the case. Given how politically sensitive the issue has become, any research suggesting warming is caused by human activities and represents a threat to ecosystems can quickly degenerate into a debate about underlying biases.

Last week saw two such developments as the right-of-center George C. Marshall Institute and left-leaning magazine Mother Jones both published reports implying the findings touted by global-warming proponents and skeptics, respectively, have been skewed by the sponsors of the research.

The Marshall report, authored by its president, Jeff Keuter, begins succinctly enough: "In today's highly charged environment of climate change policy, efforts are often made to impugn the credibility of those engaged in the debate through assertions that their views are a product of financial relationships rather than sincerely held beliefs or objective research."

Meanwhile, Mother Jones focused on ExxonMobil's contribution to the climate debate. Journalist Chris Mooney reported the company "spent $8 million to fund some 40 global warming debunkers between 2000 and 2003, with the Competitive Enterprise Institute receiving the largest sum ($1.38 million). These groups ... are attempting to undermine the broad consensus on global warming through a misinformation campaign employing 'reports' designed to look like a counterbalance to peer-reviewed studies, skeptic propaganda masquerading as journalism, and events featuring debunkers like novelist Michael Crichton, author of the anti-environmentalist page-turner, 'State of Fear.'"

In short, both entities implied that certain scientific research actually contained findings skewed by the objectives of its sponsors.

In a bit of irony, the Marshall Institute also framed part of its argument around a quote from Crichton's bestseller.

"Environmental 'studies' are every bit as biased and suspect as industry 'studies,'" Crichton wrote. "Government 'studies' are similarly biased according to who is running the department or the administration at the time."

Despite the ominous texts, the conspiracies purportedly exposed are pretty small. The Marshall report noted only about 5 percent of federal obligations for research is dedicated to environmental sciences, and climate research makes up only a small portion of that -- $1.5 billion to $2.0 billion in all. This amount is dwarfed by the proportion of federal research funding -- 50 percent -- that goes to the life sciences.

Nevertheless, the Marshall scholars found reason to furrow their eyebrows suspiciously.

"While $2 billion is a low percentage of total federal spending on science and technology, government sources make up an alarmingly high percentage of resources some universities, and individual researchers, devote to research in atmospheric sciences and related fields," the report said.

Meanwhile, Mother Jones preferred to finger ExxonMobil, saying the 40-or-so organizations the company has pumped more than $8 million includes think tanks, media outlets and "consumer, religious and even civil rights groups that preach skepticism about the oncoming climate catastrophe."

The article lists cites the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the largest recipient, as equating the probability of danger from global warming with "an alien invasion."

"We try to stay abreast of the best science, but we don't do research," Myron Ebell, director of Global Warming Policy for CEI, told UPI's Climate. "In everything we try to do, we try to represent what we think is the best science on our issue."

Ebell noted that the large contributions from ExxonMobil and other private funders are the result of the organization's stances, not the originator of them.

"CEI was founded in 1984, before the Rio treaty (on climate) was negotiated. (CEI Founder) Fred Smith was saying then that this is the next big environmental undertaking and we've got to get ready for it," he said.

Ebell said his group worked on climate issues with little funding for many years. "Our views are known and have been known to potential funders for a long time," he said.

The Marshall report found between $37 million and $50 million a year flowed from private foundations to climate-change-related research between 2000 and 2002. The largest donor, the report said, "was the Energy Foundation of California, with $43.5 million disbursed to support a variety of policy and technology development projects to both U.S. and international institutes."

Climate represents only one area of interest for the Energy Foundation, however. It did grant over $43 million in 2002, but only about $1.2 million was specifically targeted at climate programs, according to EF's annual report.

Eric Heitz, the foundation's president, dismissed the Marshall report's implications.

"Any claim that philanthropy is trying to influence science understands neither philanthropy nor science," Heitz told Climate.

Nevertheless, there is a danger that sources of funding can influence outcomes -- though this influence is usually subtle.

"Nearly always this is unconscious," Sir Patrick Bateson, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, told Climate. "I don't think there is much sign of people bending their results to suit a funder, but I think there is a kind of a tendency to blot out results which don't quite fit (the) hypothesis, particularly if you're getting large amounts of funds from a private source."

Bateson said the tendency is to produce results of which the funding source would approve, "because then you are more likely to get more funds."

One prime example, he said, is the industry-sponsored research on the health impacts of cigarettes.

"I think it is more likely that there will be a bias there than in research grants from government sources," Bateson said, "but it's possible, of course, anywhere, and many scientists are not as aware as they should be of how they can unconsciously select their data."

If the Marshall Institute's assertion is taken at face value, though -- "Government 'studies' are similarly biased according to who is running the department or the administration at the time" -- then the current results from U.S. government-sponsored research should reflect the skepticism of climate change exhibited by the Bush administration so far. Because it does not, that would argue for the independence of the researchers from funding concerns.

--

Climate is a weekly series examining the potential impact of global climate change, by veteran environmental reporter Dan Whipple. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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