Conflicts of Interest

Since I have little (no?) self-control, I sometimes find myself checking what RPJ is up to. I mostly find it worth ignoring, but I found myself considering one of his recent posts on [w]hen scientific integrity is undermined in pursuit of financial and political gain. It seems to have been partly motivated by him encountering a researcher who was “taking money not just from one but from many companies that are direct beneficiaries of the legislation he helped to design“, but also because another scholar (Jessica Weinkle) had recently given related testimony to the US Senate.

Although I do think it’s important to acknowledge any conflicts of interest, quite a bit of what is suggested seems rather odd. Firstly, even though the researcher isn’t named, I do happen to know who they are. As far as I can tell, they do openly acknowledge these potential conflicts of interest. That someone has a possible conflict of interest doesn’t immediately imply some kind of problem. The reason it’s important to acknowledge them is so that others can assess their significance.

It also appears that some of this is related to the continued use of climate scenarios that some regard as implausible. This is a topic that is currently under debate and – in my opinion – isn’t quite as straightforward as some would imply. I think it’s healthy to have these kind of debates and it’s perfectly fine to disagree with what others are doing. What seems less healthy is to go around suggesting that what other scholars are doing implies some kind of failure of scientific integrity.

Another issue is that, in the UK at least, there is quite a lot of pressure on academics to have a broader impact, for their research to influence policy, public opinion, or to play some kind of direct role in economic growth. So, scholars are almost expected to engage with policy-makers, with public organisations, and to potentially become involved in activities that could be financially advantageous.

So, when there is a societally significant issue, it’s hardly surprising that scholars with relevant expertise become involved with various groups that are involved in activities related to this topic. If anything, it would seem odd if they didn’t. There may even be some whose are involved in ways that aren’t ideal. However, this hardly seems sufficient to suggest that

Climate change science demonstrates an underappreciated dynamic system of conflicts of interest among climate change researchers, advocacy organizations, and the financial industry.

Others may, of course, disagree.

This entry was posted in Climate change, ClimateBall, Philosophy for Bloggers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Conflicts of Interest

  1. This just seems to be another example of it always being the [climate] scientists’ fault.

    Also, the implication is that this is some kind of major problem with climate change science. There are an awful lot of researchers/scholars engaged in climate change-related scholarship. I think it takes more than a few potential examples to imply that this is somehow prevalent amongst climate change researchers.

  2. Fergus Brown says:

    Pot. Kettle. Policy, advocacy, integrity: It all seems a little rich, since the banks of the Nile are full of crocodiles.

  3. Fergus,
    Indeed. I often think that some academic critics should be careful they don’t hurt themselves when they get off their high horse.

  4. Willard says:

    Conflicts of interest. You heard it first on Junior’s Substack:

    No, was it on Forbes:

    That is not that. Perhaps it was on the GWPF?

    No, perhaps the Heartland Institute:

    UPDATE (5/10 3:15 pm): Heartland Institute de-listed Roger Pielke Jr. as a “Heartland Expert” today after Pielke asked them to make clear he has no affiliation with them in any way. Yet as recently as last night, in a response to this post, he asserted, “If they chose to highlight me as an expert, that is their business.” #FAIL. The other amazing thing is that Pielke knew about the listing as far back as May 4! Anyway, we’re now seeing an “exodus” of “Heartland experts,” since Benny Peiser also got de-listed after my post. Pielke’s original page is cached here. The delisted page is here.

    Damn. I am sure I heard Junior talk about conflicts of interest somewhere before. But where?

  5. I was a little surprised to read this take from Roger Pielke, Jr, I guess because I thought he was a bit more pragmatic/realistic.

    No doubt, it does seem he will eagerly blow up a minor issue if he thinks it scores points. So I don’t really know what’s going on here – he might actually think these private investments (which, as I understood it, were disclosed if you bothered to look) are problematic.

    But what I found eye-rollingly tedious about it was that the target of his ire, Jesse Jenkins, has *also* been subject to tiresome attacks from rather whiny but vocal climate activists because the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton – where Jenkins had lead the creation of the comprehensive 2021 Net Zero America report – had in the past received publicly disclosed support from various energy companies.

    And this is a line of attack that has been serially brought by the same types against David Victor, Ernie Moniz and any number of prominent people who have been working to drive down emissions *long* before some of these activists appear to have even been marginally concerned about climate. (And usually it is “shoot first, investigate who it is you are shooting later” stuff, where whatever the issue, substance, person, it should be dismissed because someone found some properly disclosed donations – which can only mean it’s blood blood money!🙄)

    There’s just a huge pre-assumption of bad faith on anyone that isn’t *you* or doesn’t entirely support *your* vision of communally owned wind turbines made without cement or whatever. And a huge obsessive focus on the past, and finding and apportioning blame, and discrediting your opponents.

    It’s boring.

    Actually, it’s a lot more than boring. But it’s definitely boring writing about it.🤷

  6. Joshua says:

    Is there any difference between a potential COI, and COI.

    Maybe a COI is just a COI. But on the other hand, just because there’s a (potential) COI doesn’t mean that the COI is manifest in work product as a bias.

    The issue of COI can be tricky, but I think it’s clear that a appeal to motivation and self-interest should be added to everyone’s list of potential fallacies. They’ve long been a key feature in the climate wars.

    There was an article recently where a friend/colleague of my brother was quoted making a favorable comment about how the daughter of Charles Koch approaches the science in “self-investigation.”

    The Billionaire’s Daughter Knows What You’re Thinking

    As originally written, the article didn’t note that the scientist being quoted has received funding from Charles Koch.

    So then I noticed on Twitter that the scientist’s work was maligned; after all, just another example of Big Media and Big Science and Big Business all working together, right?

    Never mind that the scientist always takes COI seriously. Never mind that the NYTimes was at fault for not discussing the potential COI. The scientist was being dunked on as being a Koch bros bootlicker.

    All just part of the never-ending quest to attack scientitsts, because we’re all so much better off that way, right?

  7. Willard says:

    Found it.

    I think we need a definition:

    Vintage 2010.

    That’s it. All we need is a definition.

    Let the readers do the rest.

  8. Well, now the protagonists have moved on to a death-match about stoves.

  9. Willard says:

    Speaking of conflicts of interest:

    Richard is Vice President Energy Markets, Analysis and Standards

    But the views are his own, it should go without saying.

  10. Willard says:

    Still, this does not beat *that* conflict of interest:

    For context:

    I only miss Twitter when Elon is *it*.

    (Twitter is a game where there is an *it* every day and the objective is not to be *it*.)

  11. Joshua,

    Is there any difference between a potential COI, and COI.

    Yes, in many case there are simply COIs that should be declared. However, one issue that I had with what was presented in the article and in the testimony was that it seemed to define all sorts of interests as COIs. I don’t think that being associated with advocacy is necessarily a conflict of interest. I think a COI has to be something where you get material benefit, rather than just something in which you have an interest.

    I don’t think we want to end up in a position where public health experts who advocate for stronger public health measures have to now declare in their publications. I think we can probably take it as given that a researcher whose research indicates that maybe we should implement health measures to improve the welfare of the public would be supportive of advocacy to do so.

  12. Rust,

    But what I found eye-rollingly tedious about it was that the target of his ire

    Indeed. I went and looked up Jesse’s Linkein and some of his papers, and he seems to declare his interests. That, as I understand it, is the key point. The existence of a COI doesn’t immediatly imply that someone is behaving in a way that lacks integrity.

  13. Willard,

    Found it.

    It’s interesting that the definition starts with

    For this purpose, the term “conflict of interest” means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual

    and then largely focusses on financial interests. My impression is that both Roger and Jessica are suggesting that other interests, such as ideological ones, should also be acknowledged. It sounds a bit like “oh, you’re trying to make the world a better place. Better declare that as a COI.” 🙂

  14. izen says:

    There are researchers working in the field of climate science who are famous, or notorious, for their contrarian position. RP Jr, J Curry are obvious examples. I suspect posters here could supply more names.

    These scientists are primarily known for their sceptical attitude towards the mainstream position on climate change. They profit from this by being the source of ‘scientific’ opposition to the mainstream. This is not a conflict of interests, but a confluence of interests. Their contrarian position provides them with influence and money beyond what a mainstream position would afford them.

    Every statement such researchers make should come with a warning that it represents a confluence of interest in that the position they hold is sustained by their adherence to disputed and disproven opinions about the climate.

  15. Willard says:

    FWIW, there is no conflict of interest in investing in what you believe. That’s called putting your money where your mouth is. Since Junior has made a career out of raising various concerns, he has basically become a professional concern troll.

    Does it diminish his concern trolling qualities? Not at all. On the contrary.

    In my book, having skin in the game means a lot. That skin could be anything: reputation, income, whatever. The more tangible the better.

    It does not have to be much. Bets with reasonable stakes could do. The principle is to connect beliefs with real bets. More on that in a future post.

    Ultimately, AGW outcomes put real assets at risk.

  16. dikranmarsupial says:

    Is there a conflict of interest involved from making attention grabbing accusations when you have related books (an an agenda) to promote?

  17. Willard says:

    I got to ask:

    Would this be… a conflict of interest?

    I wish I could ask Judy’s Planning Engineer, but for some reason my comments do not appear anymore.

  18. Richard Arrett says:


    It is annoying being censored. I feel your pain!

  19. Willard says:

    I thought you considered it a win, RickA.

    Winning pains you?

    No need to respond.

  20. Susan Anderson says:

    Willard, I came across this in a comment on Monbiot’s trenchant complaint about Russell Brand). imho it’s beautifully succinct!

    attention economy, and what might be called “rage farming”

  21. Susan Anderson says:

    Tks Willard, useful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.