The proper role of research

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

Last week Post Media reported that two University of Calgary research accounts were used between 2005 and 2007 for a lobbying campaign funded primarily by the oil and gas industry. The campaign — which took place in part as the Kyoto Accord was being considered — sought to paint the scientifically-accepted view that climate change is human-made in a negative light.

A group called Friends of Science is behind the questionable practices. Founded by a number of retired oil industry members and academics, Friends of Science continues to investigate global warming claims and to advocate that the standard view held by most scientists — that climate change is caused by humans — is false.

Insofar as the group explores issues and questions orthodox views, this is for the best. Scientific progress is made by challenging assumptions, replicating experimental results and fine-tuning models. One role of a public university is to encourage such progress, and the freedoms that professors are afforded to pursue such work is an important part of that job. Private organizations also have the freedom to fund their own projects. It’s the mixing of the two that is cause for concern.

The Friends of Science incident is a case of such dangerous blending. The research accounts were used to fund an international political lobbying campaign meant to convince governments, industry and the general public that climate change isn’t caused by humans, and thus that the Kyoto Accord was implicity an expensive waste of time. Money from the accounts was spent on ads to promote a Friends of Science anti-Kyoto conference and to send a communications consultant to the Montreal conference. And, because the money came from a university account, the money spent was tax-exempt.

U of C political science professor Barry Cooper was partnered with Friends of Science. Cooper wanted to produce a dvd investigating orthodox climate change consensus by interviewing scientists and other academics. He claims that all of the money he received from the accounts was solely used to produce and promote the dvd. A $175,000 donation from oil and gas company Talisman Energy was provided to aid Cooper and Friends of Science to produce the dvd.

There’s an obvious concern of bias when an oil and gas company funds anti-climate change research. Cooper claims that he was exploring the topic from a politically neutral viewpoint. But it’s difficult to see why he would partner with a lobbying group that has a particularly strong stance on that same issue. Even if he had the best of intentions, how could he possibly have kept his research neutral when he was working with two groups (Friends of Science and Talisman Energy) that have such strong stakes in how that research turned out?

The details of the research account paint a less neutral picture. Three consulting firms were paid a combined total of nearly $250,000 from the university accounts. One public relations firm — apco Worldwide — was hired to increase media attention about the video and to publish opinions articles in major newspapers. These are hardly the activities a professor wishing to make his research known would pursue. pr firms are used by lobby groups to present a specific point of view, and the view they were presenting in this case is that Canada was wrong to join Kyoto.

University projects can’t be of a political nature. Hiring a pr firm for the presentation of nearly any university research should be a warning sign.

Over the past two years the U of C has struggled with funding scandals. Engineering professor Daniel Kwok was suspended from receiving further funding by the Natural and Engineering Research Council (a major funding body) last year when it was revealed that he spent research money on items unrelated to his research, including chrome exhaust pipes and home entertainment equipment worth nearly $18,000.

Kwok’s case doesn’t have the same scope as Cooper’s, but it’s disconcerting for similar reasons. In both cases freedom of information requests were required to bring the information to the public — in the most recent case the university attempted to prevent the information from going public. This is unacceptable.

The public deserves to know how its money is being spent and university administration have a duty to ensure that money given to a public institution is being used in the public’s interest. If this requires the U of C to stop allowing donations from industry — a suspect practice to begin with — so be it. At least we’ll know the research is honest.

Leave a comment