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Climate Academic Probed by Congress Falsely Charges Colleagues With Conflict of Interest

03/01/2015 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2015

Professor Roger J. Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado recently compared many widely-published energy and climate experts with Dr. Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Soon is the subject of recent media attention for failing to follow conflict of interest (COI) rules at some scientific journals. There is no comparison whatsoever, and we ask Dr. Pielke to retract his accusations and apologize.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Dr. Soon "has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers." In particular, recently released documents revealed that "Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as 'deliverables' that he completed in exchange for their money." Also, the agreement between the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Southern Company required the Smithsonian to provide the coal utility "advanced written copy of proposed publications ... for comment and input."

On February 27, 2015, Professor Pielke wrote on his blog:

I have Tweeted that undisclosed COI is endemic in scientific publishing. I have had several requests for elaboration.

Here is a great example.

This paper was published by ERL in 2010: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/5/1/014017/fulltext/

It has a list of 53 co-authors. The ERL publication policy states:

"All authors and co-authors are required to disclose any potential conflict of interest when submitting their article (e.g. employment, consulting fees, research contracts, stock ownership, patent licenses, honoraria, advisory affiliations, etc. ...). This information should be included in an acknowledgments section at the end of the manuscript (before the references section). All sources of financial support for the project must also be disclosed in the acknowledgments section. The name of the funding agency and the grant number should be given, for example: "This work was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a National Cancer Institute grant R21CA141833.""

There was no COI disclosure whatsoever associated with this paper.

The 53 authors include (for example) Joe Romm, Hal Harvey and Amory Lovins each of whom had massive undisclosed financial COI (obviously and easily documented) associated with renewable energy and political advocacy. No doubt other co-authors do as well. Further, several of these co-authors have also testified before Congress without COI disclosure.

Two points:

1. The lack of COI disclosure in this case does not mean that the paper is in any way in error.

2. The lack of COI disclosure in this case does not in any way justify or excuse similar lack of COI disclosure by Willie Soon. But it does point to the incredible selectivity of outrage in standards of COI disclosure, e.g., as applied by the NYT and US Congress. The Soon case and the example here are exactly parallel. (italics added)

If COI disclosure is a good idea, and I think that it is, then it should be applied consistently across academic publishing and testimony, rather than being used as a selectively applied political bludgeon by campaigning journalists and politicians seeking to delegitimize certain academics whose work they do not like.

We are coauthors of that article, and feel compelled to respond, because the Soon case and our article are about as far from "exactly parallel" as we can imagine.

Here is the abstract of that article (full text is available as open access here):

The growing investment by governments and electric utilities in energy efficiency programs highlights the need for simple tools to help assess and explain the size of the potential resource. One technique that is commonly used in this effort is to characterize electricity savings in terms of avoided power plants, because it is easier for people to visualize a power plant than it is to understand an abstraction such as billions of kilowatt-hours. Unfortunately, there is no standardization around the characteristics of such power plants.

In this letter we define parameters for a standard avoided power plant that have physical meaning and intuitive plausibility, for use in back-of-the-envelope calculations. For the prototypical plant this article settles on a 500 MW existing coal plant operating at a 70% capacity factor with 7% T&D losses. Displacing such a plant for one year would save 3 billion kWh/year at the meter and reduce emissions by 3 million metric tons of CO2 per year.

The proposed name for this metric is the Rosenfeld, in keeping with the tradition among scientists of naming units in honor of the person most responsible for the discovery and widespread adoption of the underlying scientific principle in question--Dr. Arthur H Rosenfeld.

As is clear from the abstract, this article defined a new metric for electricity efficiency to honor one of the giants in the field (who at the time was in his mid 80s). Art Rosenfeld is one of the country's great scientific leaders. He was the last graduate student of Enrico Fermi, and is the winner of the Enrico Fermi award and the President's Medal of Technology and Innovation, among many other honors.

Agreeing on a unit like this may have some modest benefit for the energy efficiency industry (if one can even define the boundaries of that industry) but that benefit is amorphous and diffuse, and will certainly not help any particular company or set of companies in a quantifiable way. It is a shorthand that is useful for people in the policy world to discuss large amounts of electricity savings, nothing more. As an aside, it has nothing to do with renewable energy, which Professor Pielke mentions when he names Joe Romm, Hal Harvey, and Amory Lovins above.

Professor Pielke correctly notes that there was no statement of conflict of interest in the article itself. Here's how the acknowledgments read:

The original idea for this letter came from Chris Calwell of Ecos Consulting. Jonathan Koomey, who was a PhD student of Dr. Rosenfeld's from 1985 to 1990, conducted the analysis and the writing, with comments and other contributions from the coauthors (who are all friends and colleagues of Art's). Many colleagues reviewed the drafts, including Rob Socolow and two anonymous reviewers, and we owe them our thanks. Glenn McGrath and Channele Wirman at EIA deserve our special thanks for supplying data from and timely explanations about the EIA-860 and EIA-906/920/923 data files. All errors and omissions are the authors' responsibility alone.

The reason why there was no statement of conflict of interest is because: 1) there were no "sources of financial support for the project" (it was a labor of love to honor a giant in the energy field); and 2) there is no plausible conflict of interest for a 53-author piece paying tribute to Dr. Art Rosenfeld by defining a new metric in his name.

In particular, the first author, Koomey, wrote the article on his own time and asked Art's friends and colleagues to join as coauthors to honor Art (their time commitment was minimal). The journal editor-in-chief (Kammen) waived the submission fee because he knew it was a tribute, a volunteer effort, and a worthy cause, and as one of the many people whom Art Rosenfeld has mentored, joined the paper as a co-author in tribute to Dr. Rosenfeld's career. The article benefited no private actors except Art Rosenfeld, and for him only in the sense that he was honored by the friends and colleagues who know him best and love him dearly.

This example is not at all comparable to the Soon case, where a researcher was paid by fossil fuel companies to write specific journal articles that cast doubt on the science of human-caused global warming -- but failed to follow journal COI disclosure guidelines concerning his direct funding from the fossil fuel industry for those articles. Again, our article had no funding source, and the diffuse nature of any advantage that "the efficiency industry" might gain from having a standard metric for electricity savings pales besides the five trillion dollars of annual revenues at stake from the global fossil fuel industry if the US and the world decide to truly face the climate challenge.

We ask Professor Pielke to retract his accusation that any of the co-authors had "massive undisclosed financial COI" for this article and apologize. We also ask that others who repeated these baseless claims do the same.

Jonathan G Koomey, Ph.D., Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University

Dan Kammen, Ph.D., Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley and Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Research Letters

Joseph Romm, Ph.D., Founding Editor, ClimateProgress.org and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute

Ralph Cavanagh, Natural Resources Defense Council

Ashok Gadgil, Ph.D., Civil and Environmental Engineering, UC Berkeley

Chris Calwell, Ecos Research