May 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Last year, Greenpeace revealed that scientists were receiving money from fossil fuel companies to cast doubt on climate change. Is your research for sale, too?

What is your price?

doctor receiving monetary bribe in pocketPerhaps you are about to answer that you are priceless; that you have strong values and no money could make you betray them. Of course, I would have said the same. But, what if we don’t need to answer the question to anyone? What if we just have to think about that by ourselves, with the brutal honesty that arises from the most intimate depths of our contradictions?

In the case of scientific knowledge, it is supposed to be somewhere far beyond those earthly troubles. If scientists search for truth through their almighty scientific method, there is no room for moral issues. But again reality shows us that this is not entirely true. Or, at least, this is what an undercover sting by Greenpeace seemed to reveal last December.
When reporters from Greenpeace UK posed as consultants for gas and oil companies and visited
some of the top universities in the US, two prominent professors were available for hire by the hour to write reports casting doubt on the dangers posed by global warming. Indeed, Frank Clemente, a retired sociologist formerly employed by Pennsylvania State University, and William Happer, professor of physics at Princeton University, agreed to write papers promoting the benefits of CO2 and the use of coal in developing countries.

“The project you described to me is in my skill set and I estimate cost at $15,000 USD,” wrote Professor Clemente in one of the many e-mails revealed by Greenpeace. Similarly, professor Happer, one of the most prominent climate skeptics in the US, assured that “My fee for this kind of work is $250 per hour.”

Asked about the practical problems of their collaboration, the two academics assured the fake consultants that there were easy ways to obscure the proposed corporate funding in their ‘research’. “There is no requirement to declare source funding in the US,” said Clemente. Both of them also admitted that the content likely wouldn’t make it through the peer-review process, so they would have to handpick the reviewers themselves.

This undercover investigation clearly shows how easy it may be for gas and oil companies to secretly pay academics to promotes their commercial interests. “Our research reveals that professors at prestigious universities can be sponsored by foreign fossil fuel companies to write reports that sow doubt about climate change and that this sponsorship will then be kept secret,” John Sauven, the director of Greenpeace UK, told the press.

However shocking the situation may seem, it is not something new. The uncomfortable truth is that these tactics to obfuscate facts have been used for decades by other industries, and with highly successful results.

“Doubt is our product”

In 1979, a secret notice written a decade earlier by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company was revealed to the public. Called the Smoking and Health Proposal, it disclosed many of the tactics employed by big tobacco to counter anti-cigarette forces. In one of the paper’s most revealing sections, it is said: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

As it worked very well for the tobacco companies for more than two decades, many other industries have eagerly adopted this strategy since then. Nowadays, companies that produce hazardous chemicals, gas and oil or pharmaceutical products have become experts in mounting campaigns to question scientific studies, both discrediting their findings or becoming involved in the investigative process themselves. And here is where Greenpeace’s investigations come into play. Unrevealing these tactics and explaining them are of the utmost importance to avoid the deliberate propagation of ignorance into society.

Having said that, one last important question about Greenpeace’s actuations needs to be considered: Is it ethical to destroy someone’s career without knowing if they had been involved in those shady deals before? I have my own answer. What about you?

Miquel Sureda is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Image from Shutterstock.