Congressman Grijalva is doing the right thing

Raúl Grijalva Investigates

Raúl Grijalva is the US representative from Arizona’s 3rd congressional district, a Democrat, and a supporter of environmental initiatives. As the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, he recently sent letters to seven universities requesting documents related to the background of climate change research, as a response to recent revelations in the New York Times of seemingly inappropriate failure to disclose industry funding sources by Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Willie Soon. These letters requested the following:

  • The university policy on employee financial disclosure.
  • For specific researchers or projects, drafts of government testimony and communications regarding testimony preparation.
  • Information on funding sources for the specific researchers, including the source, amount, reasons for the funding, description of funded research, and communications regarding the funding.
  • Copies of financial disclosure forms listing the university.
  • Information on the researcher’s compensation for a specified period of time.

All seven letters went to institutions housing researchers who are regarded to some degree or another as having published material that might be seen as favorable to fossil fuel industry supporters, who, in turn, are generally regarded as potentially benefiting from policy inaction regarding human caused greenhouse gas pollution. In other words, Congressman Grijalva was looking for Soon-like instances of industry support for bogus research that would ultimately be used by, among others, climate science denialists in Congress to delay action on climate change.

This makes sense to do, Grijalva has the legal power to do this, and indeed, the responsibility to do this.

Reconsidering Grijalva's Strategy

However, several people and institutions, including those who tend to protect the interests of Big Fossil but also, those who are interested in advancing good science and good policy based on that science, felt that some of these requests went to far. Rather than trying to represent others’ views, I’ll give you my own view on this.

In this world of electronic communication, the private conversation, or the closed door meeting, has been partly replaced and extensively augmented by electronic communication. This means that ideas we may float or open, honest, unfettered conversations we may have, are often recorded in electronic form, at least in part. The words we speak as part of a private conversation in a hallway or office dissipate into the air; the only physical result is the small additional heat generated as the sound waves we generate vibrate some of the molecules around us. At some point these frank, sincere, and honest (or not in some cases) conversations may turn in to some form of documentation. The conversation around the table at a faculty meeting turns into minutes. The chattering among scientists at the Monday Morning Lab Meeting turns into a memo from the lab director about what the graduate students and post docs have to start (or stop) doing. Ideas tossed around among a set of researchers may turn into a grant proposal. Endless conversations about the data and the analyses of those data turn into a draft paper. And so on.

But many of these conversations, these days, do not simply dissipate as heat, with the best or most important parts written down. Now, much of that chatter, because it takes the form of electronic communications, is unintended documentation of the process.

I worked for many years in the Congo rainforest, and lived there among the Lese people. The Lese have a saying that is absolutely wonderful. This saying is used when someone wants to say something to you that you might find objectionable, but they don’t want to push the issue too far. It goes, “Let me give you these words. If you don’t like them, give them back and we’ll pretend they never existed.”

Life is full of conversations that work that way. If scientist, administers, students, teachers, and everybody else were unable to communicate with each other without the prospect of these private conversations being made public by a freedom of information request or a Congressional demand or a legal subpoena, then those conversations would have to stop happening. That would be unthinkably stifling and destructive to the process of advancing and applying knowledge.

Grijalva Does The Right Thing

Anyway, a number of people had similar thoughts, and expressed them to Representative Grijalva. And he listened. Not long after sending out the letters, he realized that his request included a certain degree of overreach. According to the National Journal,

“The communications back-and-forth is honestly secondary, and I would even on my own say that that was an overreach in that letter,” Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, told National Journal on Monday. “I want the disclosure [of funding sources]. Then people can draw their own conclusions.”

I applaud, as we should all, Grijalva’s efforts to look into the practice of industry-bought research results, and their potential use in delaying action on climate change. That is the central narrative here. It may even be the case that in some instances looking at private correspondence will be necessary as part of one investigation or another. But at this point in time, the only thing Representative Grijalva needs is the subset of requested information that relates to disclosure, and it appears that that is the information he is now focused on. So, I applaud his rational thinking and sensible approach in this regard as well.

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I'll leave it to others to compare this initiative to that of, say Cuccinelli with regard to Michael Mann.

But the odour of Willie Soon still drifts down the breeze - can we count on other legislators to exercise this sort of judgement and restraint, now that it's been demonstrated that "climate researchers" might have dubious sources of funding? So as well as some stink-bomb publications, Soon's contributed to an atmosphere of distrust.
Almost as if he'd been paid to.

this post links yo videosbif most if his talks for DDP 2000-2014.
For as many as you can take, sample the first few minutes of each, stsrting with 2000, which tells if his great skills thst git him into the Oregon Petition effort.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 04 Mar 2015 #permalink

That's a lot of typos for someone normally so precise, John ... I hope you're ok. I wouldn't mention it except your link is bad.

By deminthon (not verified) on 04 Mar 2015 #permalink

Russell, that picture is even funnier if you take into account Soon has received the Petr Beckmann award. Beckmann claimed to have overturned Einstein's theory of relativity.

deminthon: sorry iPhone amidst runnng around.
The right URL is this one. Watch the first 2 minutes of first video at bottom, in which Art Robinson explains how Soon got involved.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 05 Mar 2015 #permalink

Marco, any more irony might turn poor Albert into an Einstein ring

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 05 Mar 2015 #permalink

Tking John's titlle at face value, if what Grijalva is doing is right, how can it be wrong enlarge the curiousity of the Congress as to the Climate Wars PR flowing from the left hand side of K-Street as well as the right?

One suspects firms like Porter Novelli have worked both sides of the street.

By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 12 Mar 2015 #permalink