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Climate change skeptic accused of violating disclosure rules

Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Willie Soon apparently failed to disclose conflicts of interest in a new paper, according to a complaint..
Pete Marovich for The Boston Globe
Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Willie Soon apparently failed to disclose conflicts of interest in a new paper, according to a complaint.

WASHINGTON — A climate-change skeptic at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has relied on grants from fossil-fuel energy interests apparently failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest in a newly released paper, according to a complaint by a climate watchdog group.

The paper by Harvard-Smithsonian scientist Willie Soon and three other climate-change skeptics contends that the UN panel that tracks global warming uses a flawed methodology to estimate global temperature change. Soon and his co-authors claim to have a simpler, more accurate model that shows the threat of global warming to be exaggerated.

The Chinese journal that published the paper, Science Bulletin, imposes a strict conflict of interest policy on authors, obligating contributors to disclose any received funding, financial interests, honors, or speaking engagements that might affect their work.

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In a note at the end of the paper, all four authors claimed no conflicts of interest on the published study. But Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, an organization based in Virginia, said Soon’s long track record of accepting energy-industry related grants indicates otherwise and might constitute a violation of Science Bulletin’s disclosure policy.

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In a letter to Science Bulletin, Davies points to the more than $1 million Soon has received from companies and interests supporting studies critical of climate change.

“At the end of the article under the heading ‘Conflict of interest’, there is this statement: ‘The authors declare that they have no conflict.’ This simply cannot be true,” Davies wrote. “I am concerned that Dr. Soon has not disclosed his funding sources or his outside consulting fees when submitting this article for publishing in your journal, and I am worried that such failure to disclosure may impact the reputation and credibility of both the journal and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”

Soon, Harvard-Smithsonian, and Science Bulletin did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Science Bulletin said in a letter dated Saturday to Davies that it will “look into the matter as appropriate.”

Christopher Monckton, the lead author of the article, denied Davies’s accusation. He said Soon cited his affiliation with Harvard-Smithsonian on the paper as a point of identification only. Soon did not receive any grant funding to support the paper, nor did any of the other authors, Monckton said.

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“The allegation that Dr. Soon had but did not declare a material conflict of interest before our paper was accepted for publication is untrue and without foundation,” said Monckton, chief policy adviser at Science & Public Policy Institute, a Virginia group that disputes UN climate research. “Neither I nor any of my three co-authors, including Dr. Soon, received any funding whatsoever for our research, which was conducted in our own time.”

Soon, the subject of a lengthy Globe profile in 2013, has long been on the radar of environmental activists, who have kept close track of his academic papers, lectures, and funding sources.

Soon has received more than $1.3 million in grants from companies, think tanks, and organizations that have either publicly criticized human-caused climate change or have a financial interest in fossil fuels, according to documents obtained by environmental activist group Greenpeace through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Fossil fuel interests that have funded Soon’s work include the American Petroleum Institute, the Texaco Foundation, and the ExxonMobil Foundation. He’s also received funding from the Koch brothers, the libertarian-conservative moguls who have lobbied against anti-climate-change legislation.

Soon maintains a strong relationship with the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank known for hosting skeptical conferences on climate change. The authors of the Science Bulletin paper did obtain funding from the Heartland Institute to make the paper publicly available on Science Bulletin’s website, Monckton said.

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Soon is listed on Heartland Institute’s website as an expert, and he has spoken at seven of the institute’s nine conferences. In September 2013, he appeared on Fox News with Heartland’s Joseph Bast to discuss the institute’s report “Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science,” which downplays some of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change’s observations of global warming. He also spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2013 to support a Heartland rebuttal of the panel’s claims, where he called the UN council “a pure bully” that pushed “blatant manipulations of fact.”

Though Soon uses his full Harvard-Smithsonian credential on the Science Bulletin paper, he is technically employed by the Smithsonian side. The institute has previously disavowed his work on climate change.

Sylvan Lane can be reached at sylvan.lane@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SylvanLane.