The Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, which houses administrative offices.

The Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as The Castle, which houses administrative offices.

Zach Frailey/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Smithsonian asks legal watchdog to investigate climate skeptic’s disclosure practices

The Smithsonian Institution has asked its independent Inspector General (IG) to investigate allegations that one of its researchers, aerospace engineer Willie Wei-Hock Soon, violated the conflict-of-interest policies of several journals by failing to disclose financial support from a large energy company in his technical papers.

“The Smithsonian is greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research,” the Smithsonian, which is based in Washington, D.C., said in a statement released late Sunday. “The Smithsonian is taking immediate action to address the issue: Acting Secretary Albert Horvath has asked the Smithsonian Inspector General to review the matter. Horvath will also lead a full review of Smithsonian ethics and disclosure policies governing the conduct of sponsored research to ensure they meet the highest standards.”

The statement also notes that the Smithsonian “does not support Dr. Soon’s conclusions on climate change.”

The moves come after two environmental advocacy groups released documents this past weekend that raised questions about whether Soon had fully disclosed his funding from the Southern Co., a major energy concern, in nine technical papers published in seven journals.

Soon is a part-time researcher at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a cooperative institute operated in conjunction with Harvard University. Soon “was hired to conduct research on long-term stellar and solar variability,” the statement notes, adding that the “Smithsonian does not fund Dr. Soon; he pursues external grants to fund his research.”

In some of the papers at issue, Soon has essentially argued that variations in the sun’s radiation output play a bigger role in influencing Earth’s climate than do other factors, such as the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide that humans are pumping into the atmosphere. He has also been a vociferous opponent of U.S. government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions; Soon’s work is often cited by politicians who agree with his views. (The Smithsonian notes that its “official statement on climate change, based upon many decades of scientific research, points to human activities as a cause of global warming.”)

The Smithsonian and the observatory are taking the disclosure allegations “very seriously,” Charles Alcock, the observatory’s director, told ScienceInsider today. “We want to understand the facts, and then take whatever steps [needed] to make corrections, if we find things that we don’t like.” Alcock says that, if the IG’s office—which has extensive investigative powers—decides not to undertake the review, “we will do it ourselves.”

One key issue, he says, is what disclosure policies were in place at the journals when Soon submitted papers to them. “You can’t hold people to present-day policies that weren’t in effect at the time,” he says. Yesterday, ScienceInsider reported that one of the journals involved, Physical Geography, had no formal conflict-of-interest or disclosure policies when Soon submitted one of the questioned papers, although it does now.

In general, Alcock says he believes Soon should have disclosed his funding. “One informal rule that is always useful is: ‘When in doubt, disclose,’ ” he says.

It’s not clear, however, what the Smithsonian can do if it concludes Soon did violate journal policies. The organization has no formal policy on disclosure, although officials have said that individual researchers are expected to comply with publishing guidelines.

The uproar over Soon’s disclosure practices is unusual in the astronomy and astrophysics community. Most of the public controversies around conflicts of interest have pertained to biomedical science and environmental research. “This is new to us,” Alcock says. “I’ve published throughout my career in [a leading] astrophysics journal and I don’t think I’ve ever filed a disclosure statement. … In fact, our major journals do not have disclosure requirements. … Other fields have a lot experience [with conflicts], and some of it has been painful. I think we are going to have to look to them for guidance.”

Alcock doesn’t expect a quick resolution to the current controversy. “We don’t want to be making policy in a hurry, because then we will have unintended consequences,” he says. “We’ll take a measured approach.”