Did AEI Seek to Buy Climate Scientists?

The blogosphere is abuzz about this breathless Guardian story alleging that the American Enterprise Institute is offering cash payments to scientists who will "undermine" the new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) Some suggest this is a scandalous example of "buying science." I've obtained copies of the letters in question and an internal memo circulated to AEI staff by AEI President Christopher DeMuth, and it seems to me there is less here than the Guardian and others might suggest.

Here is the text of the letter described in the Guardian report. It was sent by Steven Hayward and Kenneth Green of AEI in July 2006 to Professor Steve Schroeder of Texas A&M, a climate scientist who has been critical of climate models in the past.

Dear Prof. Schroeder:

The American Enterprise Institute is launching a major project to produce a review and policy critique of the forthcoming Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due for release in the spring of 2007. We are looking to commission a series of review essays from a broad panel of experts to be published concurrent with the release of the FAR, and we want to invite you to be one of the authors.

The purpose of this project is to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the IPCC process, especially as it bears on potential policy responses to climate change. As with any large-scale “consensus” process, the IPCC is susceptible to self-selection bias in its personnel, resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent, and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work of the complete Working Group reports. An independent review of the FAR will advance public deliberation about the extent of potential future climate change and clarify the basis for various policy strategies. Because advance drafts of the FAR are available for outside review (the report of Working Group I is already out; Working Groups II and III will be released for review shortly), a concurrent review of the FAR is feasible for the first time.

From our earlier discussions of climate modeling (with both yourself and Prof. North), I developed considerable respect for the integrity with which your lab approaches the characterization of climate modeling data. We are hoping to sponsor a paper by you and Prof. North that thoughtfully explores the limitations of climate model outputs as they pertain to the development of climate policy (as opposed to the utility of climate models in more theoretical climate research). In particular, we are looking for an author who can write a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy-relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy. If you are interested in the idea, or have thoughts about who else might be interested, please give Ken Green a call at 202-XXX-XXXX at your convenience.

If you and Prof. North are agreeable to being authors, AEI will offer an honoraria of $10,000. The essay should be in the range of 7,500 to 10,000 words, though it can be longer. The deadline for a complete draft will be December 15, 2007. We intend to hold a series of small conferences and seminars in Washington and elsewhere to coincide with the release of both the FAR and our assessment in the spring or summer of 2007, for which we can provide travel expenses and additional honoraria if you are able to participate.

Please feel free to contact us with questions and thoughts on this invitation.

Cordially,

Steven F. Hayward, Ph.D, Resident Scholar Kenneth Green, Ph.D, Visiting Scholar

In these letters AEI was certainly seeking out prominent analysts willing to participate in a critical examination of the IPCC report, but I don't think the letter suggests AEI wanted Professor Schroeder or anyone else to tailor their views to AEI's agenda. Rather it looks to me like an effort to encourage those who have been critical of climate projections in the past to provide a detailed assessment of the new IPCC report. A second letter was sent out earlier this year to a handful of scientists and economists and others seeking papers on climate change science and policy more broadly.

AEI President Christopher DeMuth took great exception to the Guardian story, and circulated the following memo to AEI staff.

February 2, 2007

NOTE FOR AEI SCHOLARS, FELLOWS, AND STAFF

Many of us have received telephone calls and emails prompted by a shoddy article on the front page of today’s Guardian, the British newspaper, headlined “Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study” (posted at http://environment.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,,2004397,00.html#article_continue).

The article uses several garden-variety journalistic tricks to create the impression of a story where none exists. Thus, AEI is described as a “lobby group” (we are a research group that does no lobbying and takes no institutional positions on policy issues); ExxonMobil’s donations to AEI are either bulked up by adding donations over many years, or simply made up (the firm’s annual AEI support is generous and valued but is a fraction of the amount reported—no corporation accounts for more than 1 percent of our annual budget); and AEI is characterized as the Bush administration’s “intellectual Cosa Nostra” and “White House surrogates” (AEI scholars criticize or praise Bush administration policies—every day, on the merits). All of this could have been gleaned from a brief visit to the AEI website.

But the article’s specific charge (announced in the headline) is a very serious one. Although most of you will appreciate the truth on your own, I thought it would be useful to provide a few details.

First, AEI has published a large volume of books and papers on climate change issues over the past decade and has held numerous conferences on the subject. A wide range of views on the scientific and policy issues have been presented in these publications and conferences. All of them are posted on our website. It would be easy to find policy arguments in our publications and conferences that people at ExxonMobil (or other corporations that support AEI) disagree with—as well as those they agree with and, I hope, some they hadn’t thought of until we presented them. Our latest book on the subject, Lee Lane’s Strategic Options for Bush Administration Climate Policy, advocates a carbon tax, which I’m pretty sure ExxonMobil opposes (the book also dares to criticize some of the Bush administration’s climate-change policies!).

Second, attempting to disentangle science from politics on the question of climate change causation, and to fashion policies that take account of the uncertainties concerning causation, are longstanding AEI interests. Several recent issues of our “Environmental Policy Outlook” address these issues, as does Ken Green’s “Q & A” article in the November-December issue of The American. The new research project that Ken and Steve Hayward have been organizing is a continuation of these interests. I am attaching the two letters that Steve and Ken have sent out to climate change scientists and policy experts (the first one emphasizing the scientific and climate-modeling issues addressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the second, more recent one covering broader policy issues as well)—and invite you to read them and compare them with the characterization in the Guardian article. The first letter, sent last summer to Professor Steve Schroeder of Texas A&M (and also to his colleague Gerald North), is the one quoted by the Guardian. Ken and Steve canvassed scholars with a range of views on the scientific and policy issues, with an eye to the intrinsic quality and interest of their work rather than to whether partisans might characterize them as climate change “skeptics” or “advocates.” They certainly did not avoid those with a favorable view of the IPCC reports—such as Professor Schroeder himself.

Third, what the Guardian essentially characterizes as a bribe is the conventional practice of AEI—and Brookings, Harvard, and the University of Manchester—to pay individuals at other research institutions for commissioned work, and to cover their travel expenses when they come to the sponsoring institution to present their papers. The levels of authors’ honoraria vary from case to case, but a $10,000 fee for a research project involving the review of a large amount of dense scientific material, and the synthesis of that material into an original, footnoted and rigorous article is hardly exorbitant or unusual; many academics would call it modest.

We should all be aware that political attacks such as the Guardian‘s are more than sloppy or sensation-seeking journalism: they are efforts to throttle debate, and therefore aim at the heart of AEI’s purposes and methods. The successive IPCC climate change reports contain a wealth of valuable information, but there has been a longstanding effort to characterize them as representing more of a “scientific consensus” than they probably are, and to gloss over uncertainties and disagreements within the IPCC documents themselves. Consensus plays an important role in science and scientific progress, but so does disputation—reasoned argument is essential to good science, and competition of ideas is essential to scientific progress. AEI is strongly opposed to the politicization of science, just as it is to the politicization of economics and other disciplines. On climate change as on other issues, we try to sort out the areas of genuine consensus from the areas of reasonable debate and uncertainty. Ken and Steve’s letter to Professor Schroeder was clear about this: “we are looking for . . . a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy-relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy.” The effort to anathematize opposing views is the standard recourse of the ideologue; one of AEI’s highest purposes, here as in many other contentious areas, is to ensure that such efforts do not succeed.

Chris DeMuth

If there were evidence that AEI was trying to get individual scientists to change their tune in return for large honoraria, there would undoubtedly be a story here. But there is no evidence this occurred. The general views of Professors Schroeder and North are well knowm to those who work in this area, and were unlikely to be swayed by ths offer (and they were not). More broadly, just as there may be financial incentives to write analyses desired by corporate funders, there are also financial incentives to tailor research projects and findings to increase the likelihood of receiving government grants. This is why I believe scientific studies should be analyzed on their merits, not the source of funding.

In the end, some may wish AEI was not sponsoring critical research and analysis of the IPCC report and current climate policy proposals, but it's hardly a scandal that they do.

UPDATE: AEI's David Frum chimes in here. Frum finds the Guardian story and the charges it has spawned to be absurd. Interestingly enough, Frum also supports the adoption of a carbon tax to address the threat of climate change.

Some folks have pointed me to this item on TNR's "The Plank" by Bradford Plummer. I don't find it any more compelling than the Guardian story, and the suggestion that there should be no criticism of the IPCC report because "any scientists out there who had legitimate complaints about the report . . .could have worked with the IPCC and registered their objections during the drafting process" is positively silly. Set aside the growing critique that the new IPCC report is not alarmist enough, as I discussed here, the Summary for Policymakers released last week is ultimately revised and approved by participating governments, not the hundreds of scientists who participate in the development of the underlying report. The actual IPCC report itself is not immune from critique either. As a "consensus" document that is based upon research conducted prior to a set date, it cannot hope to resolve all of the continuing debates about various aspects of climate science. Judgments are made during the drafting process to accomodate differing views. Further, it presents various scenarios with potentially different implications for public policy. Sincere efforts to distill, analyze, and critique the report, and explain why policy decisions should rely on certain findings more than others, are helpful to the policy development process. This is true whether such efforts are sponsored by AEI, the Pew Foundation, or Environmental Defense.