Smithsonian Revamps Disclosure Rules After Willie Soon Controversy

Dual four-month investigations recommend a series of changes that would strengthen the organization's rules on disclosure and ethics.

The Smithsonian Institution has announced changes to its disclosure policies, following revelations that one of its researchers, climate contrarian Willie Soon, published studies in academic journals without disclosing the fossil fuel funders behind his work. Credit: Martin Kalfatovic, flickr

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The Smithsonian Institution has written new rules to head off conflicts of interest, part of its long-awaited response to revelations that one of its scientists, climate contrarian Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, failed to divulge the funding sources for research questioning man-made global warming.

The organization’s new disclosure policies would make funding sources for research by its staff more transparent––and allow the institution to assess potential conflicts before approving research grants.

Those and other recommendations follow dual four-month investigations prompted by the revelation in February that Soon did not disclose the identity of fossil fuel interests that funded his published studies––which often place blame for rising global temperatures on solar activity instead of fossil fuel burning.

Had the proposed policies been in place years ago when Soon––a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.––obtained more than $800,000 for widely discredited climate research, he would have been required to disclose the sources of his funding, said John Gibbons, Smithsonian spokesman.

Soon did not respond to a request for comment.

Eleven of Soon’s studies published in nine scientific journals––going back more than five years––were funded by fossil fuel interests, including ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the coal utility Southern Company Services Inc. Not all sources were divulged. The information was revealed four months ago, when Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center released documents detailing Soon’s funding sources.

Ethics experts and critics of Soon say the proposed policy changes could ripple beyond the Smithsonian and inspire other institutions to tighten disclosure rules, as well as make it more difficult for the fossil fuel industry to hide attempts to influence climate discussions.

Shortly after the controversy became public, Smithsonian officials initiated both an internal and external review of its ethics policies, including rules governing disclosure. The two reviews focused on Smithsonian policies, not on Soon’s conduct.

Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation, conducted the external review.

In a letter to Smithsonian officials detailing her findings, Colwell’s said the organization’s policies for published studies were “generally consistent” with academic best practices, but that the Smithsonian should do better. “I recommend the Institution strengthen its existing policies and modernize its operating procedures,” Colwell told the Smithsonian executives.

The internal investigation conducted by three Smithsonian departments reached the same conclusions as Colwell and recommended a series of policy changes that would strengthen the organization’s rules on disclosure and ethics.

The new procedures “should require that staff disclose all sources of research funding in connection with any publication written as a member of Smithsonian staff, regardless of a journal’s or publisher’s requirements,” according to the Smithsonian’s announcement of the ethics overhaul.

Three other specific changes are on the table. One directs all grant proposals be reviewed for possible conflicts before they are submitted for funding. Another requires Smithsonian to update and automate its financial disclosure program so that all researchers are included in the disclosure process, a change that would add 150 researchers. The third calls for Smithsonian to adopt a single set of baseline terms and conditions in grants on things like academic freedom to publish.

“The Smithsonian is now ready in this new age of scholarly research to lead the way in academic standards for conflict of interest disclosures,” John Kress, the Smithsonian’s interim undersecretary for science, said in the announcement.

Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, the environmental watchdog organization that released the Soon documents in February, said Smithsonian has set the bar for other institutions and organizations. Davies spent more than a decade at Greenpeace before founding the center in 2014.

“It’s better than I expected,” he said. “They actually say we can do things better…The best-case scenario is that it will pull other institutions along.”

Davies added, “there is a message to corporations here that it’s not going to be so easy to work behind the scenes” to manipulate public policy discussions about climate change. “There is a message to researchers like Dr. Soon that they are going to have to be more transparent.”

The Smithsonian’s proposed ethics revisions would make researchers more accountable, but there must be a mechanism in place to ensure compliance and consistent adherence to the new rules into the future, said Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“The question is, will they have the institutional staying power to enforce these policies into the future or is it something that will fade over time?” Brulle said. “If these just become rules on the books over time without enforcement then the intended consequences will be lost.”

While Brulle applauds Smithsonian for its commitment to transparency and credibility, he said there should be consistent standards for all researchers and institutions. He suggests the establishment of national guidelines.

“There is still not a uniform practice across all of the academic world,” he said. “It varies widely by institutions so you have inconsistencies across different arenas…For there to be credibility in disclosure there have to be uniform standards.”

Gibbons, the Smithsonian press secretary, said the organization’s next step will be developing a plan to implement and enforce the policies.

“We want to be as diligent as possible to make sure we are transparent and that we avoid any possible conflict of interest,” he said. “The next step will be to find the most efficient way to administer these policies so that we aren’t adding more bureaucracy.”

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