Willie Soon Out of Headlines, but Still in the Crosshairs

Climate contrarian has already lost his biggest fossil fuel industry funding, and Harvard-Smithsonian and the IRS may soon weigh in.

May 4, 2015

Willie Soon is honored by the Heartland Institute at its annual climate denial conference. Soon has been under fire for alleged ethical lapses for failing to disclose industry funding of his research. Credit: screenshot of Heartland Institute video

In the two months since Wei Hock "Willie" Soon's life turned inside out, his job doing research for Harvard-Smithsonian has continued without major repercussions. But that could soon change.

The embattled scientist who works out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has been under fire for failing to disclose the identity of fossil fuel interests that funded his published studies––which blame climate change on the sun, not on human activity.

The potential ethical lapse was revealed after Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center released documents in February detailing Soon's funding sources.

Lately, Soon has been out of the headlines as he wraps up his two latest climate studies, both funded by organizations with a bent toward climate denial

But that doesn't mean all is calm.

  • The venerable Smithsonian Institution has ordered up three investigations––one of Soon, and two of itself.

  • The Internal Revenue Service appears to be interested in knowing more about whether funding from a foundation connected to the billionaire Koch brothers supported illegal lobbying.

  • A congressman from Arizona wants to know who paid for the research of seven other contrarian scientists who testified about climate change before Congress.

  • The coal-fired electric utility Southern Company Services, which serves 4.4 million customers in four states, has pumped nearly a half-million dollars into Soon's research, but will stop funding his work after his current project.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics houses the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The Smithsonian side employs Soon, but he relies on grants from outside funders for his research and salary.

Smithsonian's Probe

Between 2008 and 2011, Soon solicited fossil fuel interests to pay for studies that show how the sun affects climate change and other climate-denial perspectives, according to the documents and other public records obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center. The companies were ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, Southern Company Services and Donors Trust Inc., an organization that facilitates contributions largely toward conservative causes from donors who wish to remain anonymous. The studies were called "deliverables" to funders.

Fallout from that disclosure triggered Smithsonian officials to direct its inspector general to examine Soon's ethical practices regarding funders. At the same time, the Smithsonian directed both an internal and independent review of its ethics and disclosure policies.

"By looking it at it from an internal perspective we can apply our institutional knowledge as to why and how things are done and determine if our policies are adequate," said John Gibbons, press secretary for the Smithsonian Institution.

The external review will compare the Smithsonian's policies to those of similar scientific institutions and universities, Gibbons said. It will be conducted by Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation.

"The idea is to make sure our policies are as up to date as they can be and they are in line with the rest of the academic community," he said.

After the two reviews, Smithsonian officials will determine if it should revise its ethics policies, Gibbons said.

Neither of those reviews, which Smithsonian officials hope will be completed in June, center on Soon. But a third one does. It is being conducted by Smithsonian's inspector general, an independent federal agency within the Smithsonian, to detect and prevent fraud and to promote efficiency.

Epin Christinsen, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian's inspector general, said it is the policy of the office not to discuss inquiries. But she said investigations that target Smithsonian personnel can result in either administrative action or criminal charges.

Administrative action is kept confidential while criminal matters become public if charges are filed. The last criminal case resulted in three parking attendants being sent to prison in 2013 for their roles in stealing more than $1 million in visitor parking fees.

Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, said he expects the two reviews of Smithsonian's ethics policy will find some common lapses by the Smithsonian's staff and will prod employees to adhere to the rules more strictly.

"People sometimes get sloppy about these things," he said. "You have all these bureaucratic guidelines that say 'do this' and that and you forget. That happens. It's nothing intentional."

Although Brulle said he could not speculate on the inspector general's inquiry into Soon's personal conduct, he said there is always an expectation of "the highest ethical standards" on the part of scientists whose research could have a significant worldwide impact.

Disclosing the source of funding is critical to allowing an accurate assessment of the work, Brulle added. "Failing to do that leaves it difficult to know what kind of influences are at work," he said.

Soon remains a member of the staff, though Smithsonian has distanced itself from his work, saying it "does not support Dr. Soon's conclusions on climate change."

A Taxing Situation?

Soon's funding from the Charles G. Koch Foundation also has attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service.

In a February letter to the IRS, Greenpeace suggested Soon's work funded by a grant from the foundation may have led to potentially illegal lobbying. The IRS encouraged Greenpeace to submit additional information.

The Greenpeace complaint is based on documents that show Soon received $230,000 from the foundation for a study focused on solar activity as the cause of climate change. The foundation is tied to billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have used their fortune to sway public opinion and exert political influence in support of business and conservative causes. (The brothers have pledged to spend almost $900 million on 2016 political campaigns.)

In his proposal to the Koch Foundation, a tax-exempt charity that is allowed to write off its payment to the scientist, Soon said his work could be used to "more powerfully serve informed public policy making."

Greenpeace sees that as a euphemism for lobbying.

IRS rules prohibit the Koch Foundation and other such organizations from keeping their tax-exempt status if they try to influence legislation.

When it authorized the funding, the foundation told Harvard-Smithsonian the grant "will not be used to influence legislation."

The conflict-of-interest uproar involving Soon also prompted Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to open an investigation into the funding sources of seven other mainly climate-skeptic scientists affiliated with various universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Alabama and Pepperdine University.

Grijalva, the leading Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, asked the seven universities to turn over documents about grants, congressional testimony and other activities involving the scientists who have testified at congressional climate hearings.

"I am hopeful that disclosure of a few key pieces of information will establish the impartiality of climate research and policy recommendations published in your institution's name," Grijalva wrote, adding that he hoped the disclosures would lead to better laws.

All seven universities responded but only four provided records. Three of the responses said it was against university policy to disclose the information requested.

The Democratic staff of the Natural Resources Committee has been reviewing material provided by the universities in anticipation of issuing a report based on its analysis of the material.

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