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Willie Soon recently co-authored a paper that criticised the big computer models used for many projections of future climate (which in turn have fed the IPCC process that drive consensus climate policy).

The majority of comment in the mainstream media focuses on a claim that Soon is guilty of failing to disclose a major conflict of interest. The Guardian summarises thus:

Greenpeace has suggested Soon also improperly concealed his funding sources for a recent article, in violation of the journal’s conflict of interest guidelines.

The company was paying him to write peer-reviewed science and that relationship was not acknowledged in the peer-reviewed literature,” Davies said. “These proposals and contracts show debatable interventions in science literally on the behalf of Southern Company and the Kochs.”

In letters to the Internal Revenue Service and Congress, Greenpeace said Soon may have misused the grants from the Koch foundation by trying to influence legislation.

Did Willie Soon fail to disclose a conflict of interest with the fossil fuel lobby?

  • Removed old comments and reopened. – Sklivvz Mar 11 '15 at 19:17
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note: This question was originally much longer and quoted section 1 of this response by The Heartland Institute. My comments here are in reference to those claims.


The Heartland Institute's claims about conflict of interest policies and funding disclosure, at least, are incorrect. The conflict of interest policy for Science Bulletin states:

Authors must disclose all relationships or interests that could influence or bias the work. Examples of potential conflicts of interests that are directly or indirectly related to the research may include but not limited to the following:

  • Research grants from funding agencies (please give the research funder and the grant number)
  • Honoraria for speaking at symposia
  • Financial support for attending symposia [...]
  • Support from a project sponsor [...]

In addition, interests that go beyond financial interests and compensation (non-financial interests) that may be important to readers should be disclosed. These may include but are not limited to personal relationships or competing interests directly or indirectly tied to this research, or professional interests or personal beliefs that may influence your research.

Funding is mentioned on the same page:

Acknowledgments: Acknowledgments of grants, funds, people, etc. should be placed in a separate section before the reference list. The names of funding organizations should be written in full.

(In lay writing, an "acknowledgements" section is optional and usually informal, but in scientific writing it's a formal part of the paper with explicit rules.)

The claim that Soon did not receive the grant funding directly is irrelevant. It's rare for academics to receive funding directly. Grants are almost always made in the name of the researcher's institution, and the institution almost always keeps a large portion to cover their costs. Similarly, it's not relevant that the Smithsonian approved the grant, because no one is claiming that there was something wrong with the grant. The claim is that it needed to be disclosed.

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    So, does every paper have to disclose all previous sources of funding from any source? Is that standard applied to all papers by all authors all the time? – matt_black Mar 9 '15 at 22:33
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    My field is the social sciences, but as far as I know the standards are the in other fields. You're required to disclose the sources of funding for study activities, as well as funding that supported you while the study was being run. This includes funding that helped pay your salary, even if it wasn't linked to the specific project. I believe that speaking fees and the like don't need to be disclosed on every paper, but they do need to be disclosed if there's any plausible relationship between the funder and the topic of the work. – octern Mar 10 '15 at 1:50
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    As far as I know this standard is applied to all authors by all reputable journals. It is considered a basic part of professional ethics. – octern Mar 10 '15 at 1:52
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    I would say that industrial funding is definitely a conflict of interest. But saying that something is a "conflict of interest" doesn't mean that it's improper or unethical. In most cases the rules don't say that you have to avoid conflicts of interest, just that you have to disclose them. – octern Mar 10 '15 at 15:42
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    @matt Conflicts of interest are about the credibility of a research paper: a paper with hidden conflicts of interest is less credible than a paper with disclosed conflicts of interest, which in turn is less credible of a paper without conflicts of interest. All this applies whether the results of the paper are right or wrong. A bad, undisclosed CoI doesn't mean a paper is wrong, just that it doesn't matter because it's not believable. – Sklivvz Mar 11 '15 at 19:24

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