Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Fossil Fuel Donors

Letter from Nobel laureates and other scientists goes to 330 institutions urging them to cut ties with the industry responsible for climate misinformation.

Nearly three dozen scientists are calling for science-related museums across the country to cut their ties to fossil fuel donors. This includes the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., pictured above, which has oil and gas billionaire David Koch on its board of trustees. Credit: Ryan Somma, flickr

Hundreds of museums across the country––including some of the most prestigious––are being asked by more than 30 scientists to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry.

In a letter sent to more than 330 science and natural history centers on Tuesday, the researchers said that when "some of the biggest...funders of misinformation on climate science" give millions of dollars to science-focused museums, it acts to "undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions."

"Museums are feeling budgetary crunches, and these donors bring in large sums of money," said Beka Economopoulos, co-founder and director of the Brooklyn-based Natural History Museum, a new educational organization that coordinated the letter. "Museums, even unintentionally, are unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. There is a threat of self-censorship where the philanthropy serves to make museums more reticent to offend the donor, or certainly to critique the practices of the donor." 

The campaign comes just weeks after the release of public documents show Smithsonian-affiliated astrophysicist Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon published articles arguing that the sun, not greenhouse gases, is driving modern climate change after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel interests. He later failed to disclose that funding in academic journals' conflict-of-interest statements.

Museums are some of the world's top tourist destinations, particularly for families. Science-related institutions made up four of the top 10 most visited museums across the globe in 2014.

Concern over these museums' close financial ties with major oil-and-gas donors has been mounting for years. Fossil fuel billionaire David Koch, for example, sits on the boards of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Koch gave the Smithsonian $15 million to build the Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2010. The exhibit has been widely criticized for ignoring the role humans play in driving modern climate change, and the challenge it poses to modern society.

Read: Groups Want David Koch Unseated From Smithsonian, AMNH Boards

Koch and his brother Charles have given millions of dollars to organizations that question the validity of climate science and try to slow climate action.

"The presence of certain people on the board of trustees can alter the conversation at a museum," said James Powell, a geochemist and former president of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia and the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. He is a signatory to the letter published Tuesday. "Why would a science museum have a science denier, who is actively aiding and abetting denial, in a position of power?"

The scientists' letter is accompanied by the launch of a petition sponsored by 15 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and CREDO, asking that David Koch be removed from his board positions at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History.

The David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, Koch Industries, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History did not return requests for comment.

"Climate change and other issues are based on evidence and facts," said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., and a signatory of the letter. "All too often, vested interests come in and cast doubt where it should not exist and ideology rears its head." 

In 2014, the Dallas Morning News reported the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Texas largely skirts the issue of anthropogenic climate change in its exhibits. Furthermore, it ultimately failed to hang an approved panel describing the link between the burning of fossil fuels and global warming. Elsewhere in the museum, visitors can see a massive oil drill bit, take a tour of a fracking well, and touch a piece of the Barnett Shale, which has fueled Texas' recent natural gas boom. The institute's major funders include ExxonMobil and the Rees-Jones Foundation, which was created by the founder of Chief Oil & Gas, among other fossil fuel executives.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science discusses only historical global warming, not modern, human-driven climate change. Carolyn Sumners, the museum's vice president for astronomy and the physical sciences, told the Dallas Morning News, "We try to avoid saying things that are not necessary to be said."

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta told The New York Times in 2012 that it had no plans to include climate change in its exhibits anytime soon. Brian Davis, then the museum's vice president for education and training, described its visitors as "very conservative."

"When they hear certain terms, our guests shut down. We've seen it happen," he said.

In contrast, a coalition of nearly 90 museums, aquariums, zoos and educational centers is working to better communicate the scientific evidence for––and consequences of––climate change. The group, known as the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, is funded by the National Science Foundation. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where David Koch is a board member, is part of the coalition.

The scientists who signed today's letter to museums said they did so cautiously and thoughtfully. "I do not sign just anything," Trenberth said.

This is also the latest example of scientists breaking tradition and dipping into activism.

"For a long time, we stayed out of the public arena, chose to just present the facts" and let policymakers decide what to do with them, said Powell. "But when you start thinking about your grandchildren's future and watching as science denial threatens it, how can you stay silent?"

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