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Laurie David claims that National Science Teachers’ Association (the NSTA) is inconveniently hooked up with big oil because they won’t spend the money to send out 50,000 copies of the “An Inconvenient Truth” DVD.

If I do the math and estimate that it costs $4 to mail each DVD, that includes packaging, mailing, the costs of hiring a distribution center, I get $4 x 50,000 = $200,000. I think that’s an expensive gift.

Is there really a smoking gun?

For the record, I saw the movie and personally, I would like a large number of teachers and students to see it, too. But, I’m bothered by Ms. David’s tactics and I can’t help feeling that her group is working a little too hard to make a case against the NSTA and make something out of nothing.

They were even so kind as to e-mail me today and point out a few things on Ms. David’s new blog post.

What are these horrible crimes that they say have been committed by the NSTA?

1. The NSTA has been updating their website and some of the information that used to be there is gone.

Okay, that could make muckraking a bit harder. I’m not sure that updating your website is necessarily evidence of wrongdoing, but I can see how it might be frustrating if you want to quote information and it’s disappeared.

2. The NSTA sells their mailing list!

This is news? Umm, that’s why they give members the option to opt out.

From Ms. David’s viewpoint:

More troubling is that their suggestions were nothing more than another set of ‘For Sale’ signs: Offers to sell their “commercially available member mailing list”; to sell us ads in their magazine and online newsletters; to sell us a booth at one of their conventions (hopefully not next to ExxonMobil). And as it turns out, all of these things are already for sale on the NSTA website to anyone who shows up with the cash.

By the way, why are science teachers’ names for sale at all?

Oh! Oh! I can answer that question.

First, all kinds of non-profit and for-profit organizations routinely sell their mailing lists. We get mail from magazines, meeting organizers, and industry groups trying to sell these lists to us all time. For a non-profit organization, with members who are chronically are underpaid, selling mailing lists is a way of raising operating funds.

Second, publishers buy the mailing lists so they send science teachers information about new books, videos, magazines, etc. It’s an odd thought, but how would teachers know about new science education materials if there weren’t publishers sending them information?

3. 20,000 copies of a science education video, produced with funding from ConocoPhillips, were sent to teachers in 2003.

From Ms. David:

Now NSTA is arguing that distributing An Inconvenient Truth to teachers would violate their 2001 policy against endorsements. But that policy didn’t stop them from shipping out 20,000 copies of a whopping 10-part video funded by ConocoPhillips in 2003.

This is interesting and would appear to contradict the NSTA’s stated policy of not distributing materials for third party vendors.

Until you look at the NSTA web page that’s referenced in Ms. David’s blog.

From the NSTA page we get:

ConocoPhillips Brings Science to Life Apr 22 2003

Houston, Texas, April 22, 2003 – ConocoPhillips [NYSE:COP] is continuing a long tradition of promoting excellence in science learning through the newest release of its Search for Solutions video series.

Produced in conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the 10-part series explores the nature and process of science – creativity, modeling, application, theory and argument – and how these processes play out in science and technology. Designed to capture the attention and imagination of junior high and high school students, the video series is accompanied by online teaching guides that help reinforce concepts through discussion, hands-on exercises and experiments. To impart a global view of the practice and application of science, the series features distinguished scientists and research centers in the United States, Australia and Chile.

The Search for Solutions video series was distributed recently to more than 20,000 science teachers in the United States free of charge.

Notice, despite Ms. David’s words to the contrary, the NSTA page doesn’t say who paid to distribute the video series. She states that it was the NSTA.

Where’s the proof?

I come from a world where saying something is true doesn’t make it so. To me, the phrase “was distributed” doesn’t say the same thing as “we distributed.”

My suspicion is that the NSTA gave ConocoPhillips the same offer that it gave to Ms. David, that they (as in ConocoPhillips) could pay to distribute the materials. But, I admit, I don’t have any more proof than Ms. David. And, I’m not comfortable making accusations without proof.

Ms. David also says:

We’re working on better ways to get those 50,000 DVDs into the hands of teachers who want them.

This sounds nice, but I wrote to her contact address on her blog when I first saw the story and offered to publicize an address where teachers could get the DVD. Instead of mailing address, I received an e-mail telling me where I could buy the DVD and that I could get it to teachers by buying them copies.

Without seeing Ms. David offer to pay for the distribution costs (which I estimate to be upwards of $200,000 – that’s $4 per DVD for shipping containers, postage, and mailing services, $4 x 50,000 = $200,000), or at least some more tangible evidence of wrongdoing, I have a hard time believing that her offer to the NSTA was anything more than a publicity stunt.

Related posts:
1. A generous offer from the NSTA. The NSTA made an offer. Ms. David turned it down.
here and here.
2. Jumping to conclusions about the NSTA. Anyone can donate money to teachers. Does that automatically mean that strings are attached?

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Comments

  1. #1 Genevieve Williams
    December 8, 2006

    Selling the mailing list may be annoying, but it can’t be that unusual. I belong to four different library associations and I get so much promotional mail from publishers and software vendors that I need a shovel to sort it.

  2. #2 JanieBelle
    December 9, 2006

    Sandra, your link to the NSTA press release is pointing to an empty press release. The page is all formatted and stuff, but there’s no release there.

    If you’re looking for the press release in rebuttal to Ms. David’s original op-ed, that can be found here.

    Your link to Ms. David’s “redirect” (as I’ve been thinking of this) is also broken, but can be found here, at the Huffington Post.

    Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I was pointed to that story by an EMail from Jon Coifman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He freely admits he’s an interested party, and that should be noted.

  3. #3 KevinC
    December 12, 2006

    So what if ConocoPhillips paid for the mailing or not, the NSTA is endorsing the video that was distributed. The sort of money for the mailing is chump change for a corporation like ConocoPhillips. Why do you feel the need to defend an association and the corporations that fund it. If you can pay for it you get their endorsement. You are saying that deep pockets can talk and others cannot.

    Of course the NSAT is within in rights to operate this way, but as someone who is going to be a science teacher I know I will never join. Because you can does not make it correct.

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    December 12, 2006

    It’s a bit different in the case of the Search for Solutions video. Of course the NSTA endorsed it, they helped make it.

    Why shouldn’t they endorse a movie that they produced?

  5. #5 Liz Borkowski
    December 12, 2006

    There are two separate issues here. First, I agree that Laurie David made a big error in not considering (or not mentioning) the cost to the NSTA of sending out the DVDs. This point makes the NSTA’s refusal of the DVDs much less shocking.

    However, I still don’t think NSTA should be taking money from a company like ExxonMobil that has fed an entire industry of science denial. I spent several years in the nonprofit world, and most of the nonprofits I had contact with were extremely careful about who they took funding from. Funding sources do affect an organization’s work, even if the effect is small or subtle; judging from some of the website excerpts David cited (which I couldn’t find on my own to verify), the effect in the case of oil companies was substantial enough to be worrisome.

  6. #6 KevinC
    December 12, 2006

    “Produced in conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)” Sounds like ConnocoPhillips produced it and the NSTA just put it’s name on it. Unless I see more proof I think they are selling out to industry. It is their right, an association needs resources. However, as Liz states, funding sources affect organizations. The NSTA’s actions are affecting their credibility with at least some of us.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    December 12, 2006

    It looks like NSTA probably was an active participant in making the Search for Solutions video series. They claim that the series was made possible with a grant from ConocoPhillips. I also fixed the link in my post above that goes to the NSTA press release about that video – so you can see what it says. Is the series any good? I don’t know.

    On the other questions:

    1. Should the NSTA have sent out the DVD?

    I can see two reasons not to send it. First, there’s a substantial cost. Second (and this is purely conjecture on my part), I suspect that groups like the NSTA try to avoid political activism. I saw and enjoyed the movie, but if I were an officer of the NSTA (and I’m not), I would have been reluctant to distribute the movie because a large part of the movie looks like an advertisement for Al Gore. No matter what my opinions are concerning Mr. Gore, if I were an officer of an organization like the NSTA, I would be hesitant to make it look like the organization is supporting a presidential candidate.

    2. Funding sources.

    I agree that your views can be colored by the source of your funding. That’s what makes disclosure laws so important.

    Should the NSTA be taking funding from ExxonMobil or ConocoPhilips?

    It seems like the easy answer is “no,” but I don’t think it’s that simple.

    In terms of getting money from oil companies, oil companies have been supporting science education for the last 30 years according to the NSTA 2003 press release. Oil companies hire scientists. Geologists, chemists, engineers, people with technical skills are needed by that industry. I would guess that they support science education, at least in part, because they need technical people.

    Where and how do groups like the NSTA draw the line on which donations to accept and which to refuse?

    Should the NSTA vote on accepting any donations?

    Should members vote on donations from pharmaceutical or biotech companies? or health care organizations? or companies like Microsoft, or Boeing?

    I think this is like the dilemma parents have when they bring their kids to McDonalds so that they can play in the lovely playgrounds. The parents may not support the Golden Arches, but they want their kids to get exercise.

    I don’t know the answer but the story wasn’t as clear cut as Ms. David made it seem. What is clear, is that the NSTA needs to clarify its policies on accepting donations and be more proactive in responding to political issues.

  8. #8 KevinC
    December 12, 2006

    Perhaps Laurie David knew that the NSTA would reject her offer of free videos. Maybe her goal was to expose the organization, give it the light of day so to say, so that educators and others might better understand the biases that corporate funded educational material advances. As Laurie David says her post at Huffington Report that you quoted from Sandra:

    “In fact, Gerry Wheeler himself is listed as executive
    producer of the film series, alongside a
    ConocoPhillips corporate PR man named Ron Stanley. His
    interest in cinema apparently didn’t extend to An
    Inconvenient Truth, however. At least not until it
    landed him in the paper.

    Wheeler says this is OK because NSTA had editorial
    control of the project. If that’s true, then maybe he
    can explain why the only scientist cited in the
    largely dismissive global warming section appearing in
    chapters six, nine and ten of the teaching guides is
    Dr. Robert Balling – a well known global warming
    skeptic who has acknowledged taking more than $400,000
    from the fossil fuel industry (others say the figure
    is higher).”

    Ms. David is self described “global warming activist” so why should she not be taking this organization to task for its funding source.

    In my perfect world we would tax the companies sanely and provide so much educational material to teachers that was not biased that any teacher would not need to accept something from a corporation. When a corporation funds something there is always the temptation to distort fact for a short term gain. That is what corporations are supposed to do, make money for the stockholder. I could go on about corporate rights but it does not really apply to this post. It is great when a corporation decides to do more, but corporations are out to make money. Period.

  9. #9 Sandra Porter
    December 12, 2006

    I agree – if the NSTA ignores the consensus of scientists and produced a movie -as it would seem that served to further the viewpoint of big oil – and not the scientific community that’s a bad thing.

    I’m bothered with Ms. David’s arguments, though, and the e-mail that I got from the NRDC, because it seems to me that they’ve been working very hard to prove a preconceived hypothesis. I feel like they made up their minds and have been looking very hard to evidence to support why they’re right.

    This whole thing seems just the like Far Side cartoon, where two people are talking about a dog and the dog hears “blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah” etc. I think Ms. David sees an oil company in a list of supporters and says “ah hah! they’re doctoring the truth because of big oil!”

    Maybe they are. But I haven’t been convinced.

    I decided to look at the 2004 AnnualReport for the NSTA and see who the other donors are.

    Did the NRDC mention that there were other people representing technology companies on the advisory board?

    Ahh, no.

    On page 19, of the Annual Report, we see that the following companies are represented on the NSTA board: Texas Instruments, Toshiba, ExxonMobil, Toyota, Merissant (they make Equal- the sweetener), Intel, and RadioShack.

    Gosh, and on page 17-20, we see a long list of donors! There’s BSCS (a non-profict publisher, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Apple Computer, NASA, the FDA, Microsoft, lots of Universities, Children’s Museums and teacher groups, the National Science Foundation, NOAA, Sears, Prentice Hall, many others, and some state science teachers’ assocations.

    Wow! It almost seems like these state science teachers’ associations and science organizations might be trying to influence science teaching!

    To me, I’ve had the feeling that these details have been conveniently overlooked. The coverage from Ms. David and the NRDC has seemed very one-sided and, I can’t help it, that sort of thing raises all of my internal red flags.

  10. #10 KevinC
    December 13, 2006

    Sandra,

    That list is a list of “Partners and Donors”. Partners are different from donors, they may or may not provide resources. I really hope that El Centro School District is not donating money as they are in the poorest county in California and need all the resources they can get. And that list is full of corporate donors. Yes, Ms. David and the NRDC was one sided, but so is this association. Where was the list of a science advisory group, they did have a list for a corporate advisory group.

    It does not mean that the NSTA does not do many wonderful things and provided needed services for our starved school systems, however, there is nothing wrong in having someone highlight possible biases. Just as Ms. David raised your red flags, the NSTA raises mine.

    I think it is a shame that our educators need the assistance of corporations. Grants are a great way for corporations to fund science they need done, but basic teaching supplies should be provided by the school systems and not corporations.

  11. #11 Sandra Porter
    December 13, 2006

    Kevin -

    I agree that a scientific advisory board would be a good thing for the NSTA to have.

    I also agree that education should be better funded by taxpayers.

    I don’t agree with the idea that corporations should be excluded from educational organizations. Companies should NOT be promoting bad science but they should be participating and helping teachers teach good science. It’s important for schools to reach out and connect with their community and like it or not, profit-making endeavors are part of the community.

    I spent quite a bit of time during my decade as a community college instructor, working with companies to find internship positions for my students, working to get donations of equipment, arrange for field trips, and get people from different areas of the biotech industry to come talk to my class. It was a symbiotic relationship. We were educating people to work in the biotech field and the biotech companies helped us out.

    Now, I work in a company, but I still serve on advisory boards for local high school programs and mentor high school students. I believe that corporations have an obligation and responsibility to help with public education. We should not let them forget that or let them off the hook.

  12. #12 Sandra Porter
    December 30, 2006

    You CAN get the DVD for free now, if you’re a teacher! Yeah! No nonsense about mailing lists or who distributes what – but there is a time limit, you’ve only got until Jan. 18th. The info is here.

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