by Ron Arnold
Dr. Willie Soon is an astrophysicist in the Solar, Stellar and Planetary Sciences Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He began as a post-doctoral fellow in 1991 and took his scientist position in 1997. His subsequent career is a textbook example of speaking truth to power and bravery facing the consequences.
Dr. Soon produced an important series of astrophysics papers on the sun-climate connection beginning in 1994 and received positive discussion in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second and third assessment reports (1996 and 2001). In that era, the IPCC still admitted uncertainties about human influence, despite green NGO pressure and U.S. State Department insistence on finding a “smoking gun” in weak data. Even Bert Bolin, co-creator and first chairman of the IPCC (1988-1997), deplored the denial of uncertainty he saw rising. In his 2007 History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change (page 112), Bolin wrote, “It was non-governmental groups of environmentalists, supported by the mass media who were the ones exaggerating the conclusions that had been carefully formulated by the IPCC.” In 1997 Bolin went so far as to tell the Associated Press, “Global warming is not something you can ‘prove.’ You try to collect evidence and thereby a picture emerges.”
Dr. Soon’s study of solar influence on climate behavior made him a target for alarmists, but he had defenders. In 2013, the Boston Globe acknowledged his guts and sound science with a quote from iconic science leader, Freeman Dyson: “The whole point of science is to question accepted dogmas. For that reason, I respect Willie Soon as a good scientist and a courageous citizen.”
In February of 2015, Greenpeace agent Kert Davies, a vocal critic since 1997, falsely accused Dr. Soon of wrongfully taking fossil-fuel company grants by failing to disclose “conflicts of interest” to an academic journal. The journal’s editors and the Smithsonian Institution found no violation of their disclosure or conflict of interest rules. However, the Greenpeace accusation caused a clamor around the world as lazy liberal reporters repeated it for major media with no fact-checking for accuracy.
The Greenpeace ruckus brought high-level Obama administration pressure on the Harvard-Smithsonian Center to silence climate skeptics – Vice President Joe Biden is a member of Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. The Institution responded with an elaborate new Directive on Standards of Conduct that forced its employees to wade through bureaucratic rules replete with an Ethics Counselor and a “Loyalty to the Smithsonian” clause of a sort not seen since the McCarthy Red Scare.
The Institution announced an Inspector General investigation of Soon, combing his emails and announcing that he had broken no rules. That seriously stung the NGO-Media-Politician coalition, which launched more attacks.
Ten days apart in the Spring of 2016, two outlets published stories scurrilously demonizing Dr. Soon. Both articles were long on bias and bogus claims but short on facts. The two activist/writers, David Hasemyer of the controversial Rockefeller-funded InsideClimateNews and Paul Basken of the for-profit Delaware corporation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, seem to have forgotten journalistic ethics and the facts.
Basken’s March 25 item, “A Year After a Climate-Change Controversy, Smithsonian and Journals Still Seek Balance on Disclosure Rules,” bemoans the fact that last year’s load of Greenpeace false accusations hadn’t caused the Institution to impose harsh enough rules to get rid of all scientists with climate skeptic views. Any fact checking didn’t show.
Hasemyer’s April 5, 2016 piece, “Smithsonian Gives Nod to More ‘Dark Money’ Funding for Willie Soon,” bewails the fact that Soon’s employer didn’t follow their playbook but approved a $65,000 grant from the non-profit Donors Trust, which is despised by greens because it uses anonymous “donor-advised-funds.” Such “dark money” grants are an IRS-approved shield pioneered decades ago by the far-left Tides Foundation for its $1.1 billion worth of grants to radicals, much of it “dark,” which Hasemyer didn’t seem to recall.
Hasemyer also neglected to note that even if Donors Trust’s “dark” grant came from ExxonMobil Foundation, the fossil-fuel philanthropy also gave universities $64,674,989; museums $2,771,150; the Red Cross $2,549,434; the Conservation Fund, Nature Conservancy and similar groups $1,210,000; Habitat for Humanity $798,000, Ducks Unlimited, $402,000 and many more from 1998 to 2014 according to IRS records. Will they be demonized as shills too?
Neither Hasemyer nor Basken displayed any familiarity with what scientists have to go through in order to do science in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics or how it works, which is the bedrock of sound, ethical journalism on the topic.
The Center combines the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of the universe. It is comprised of six divisions, and Dr. Soon is listed in the Solar, Stellar, and Planetary Sciences (SSP) Division.
About one-third of the Center’s scientists, including Willie Soon, are employed in what are called “Smithsonian Trust positions.” These positions are held mostly by PhD specialists, unlike Federal civil service. According to the Smithsonian Employee Handbook, Federal position paychecks are paid from the Smithsonian’s annual Federal appropriation and Trust position paychecks are paid from the Smithsonian’s Trust Fund. Scientists in Trust positions are paid by the hour with a Smithsonian paycheck.
Scientists in Trust positions must find donors who will give the Smithsonian grants that pay for the science. An employee information document states, “Obtaining competitive funding is an important part of the scientists’ jobs and a measure of their career success.” The grants always go directly to the Smithsonian for the science project with a 30 to 40 percent cut off the top for the Institution’s management and overhead, but never go directly to the scientist. Media attacks on Dr. Soon misrepresenting his success at this duty as nefarious are either ignorant or disingenuous.
Scientists in Trust positions must follow exacting procedures in order to obtain grants for their science according to the rules in the elaborate Contract and Grant Administration document.
The prescribed steps most relevant to Dr. Soon’s position are: First, the scientists must prepare a draft of their proposed scientific project or work. The draft then goes for pre-approval to the Director’s Office, held since 2004 by distinguished astronomer Charles Alcock. The scientists must give the Director suggestions for potential funders, but all decisions are the Director’s.
If the Director approves the draft proposal, he signs it and gives it to the Grant Office, which prepares the presentation package, including a budget, the approved proposal, and a cover letter formally requesting a grant. The Director signs the cover letter and the grant officer sends it to the potential donor.
The donor replies to the Director saying yes or no. If yes, the reply may contain a pledge to be paid when invoiced by the Center or direct payment to Smithsonian, which handles all of the Center’s money. The scientist who performs the project may not know and has no need to know who gave the grant.
When scientists perform an “off the clock” (unpaid) study to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and pays for it out of personal funds, as Willie Soon has on numerous occasions over the years, all Smithsonian approvals and checkpoints must still be passed. Claims that Dr. Soon has pocketed any off-the-clock grant money have all been shown false.
Writers who accuse Dr. Soon of wrongdoing despite firm evidence to the contrary are violating the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which states, among many other points: “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting. Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”
The hostile coverage attacking Dr. Soon could hardly be considered ethical journalism by these professional standards. The writers and publishers of such unethical journalism should be brought to account.