During his June 22, 2011 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh spoke once again on one of his “pet peeve issues,” climate change. Limbaugh, who has long rejected the consensus scientific conclusion that that Earth’s climate is changing and that human beings are responsible, was offering a new explanation for climate scientists’ behavior.
“They’ve been paid,” Limbaugh argued. “Their entire lifestyles, their standard of living depends on their grants that they get to conduct the studies, and they only get the money if they come up with the right result.”
He is not alone in his opinion. Similar statements have been made by authors, pundits, politicians, and even a handful of disgruntled scientists. In a speech to New Hampshire businessmen last August, Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry echoed Limbaugh’s remarks referencing “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”
Climate scientists have argued that global warming is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. They warn that without significant mitigation of our greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect major changes to our climate. These include longer and more intense droughts, crop failures, water shortages, more powerful and destructive weather events, rising sea levels and the death of 25-50% of Earth’s species.
It is for these reasons that the attacks on climate scientists’ integrity are so important. Can climate scientists be trusted or must they tow the party line on climate change to continue receiving grants? How exactly do they get paid? If a scientist expresses skepticism about the human influence on global warming, does he effectively disqualify himself from being funded?
The answers to these questions depend partly on who the climate scientists work for. In general, there are two classes of scientist - public and private. Public climate scientists are employed by government institutions like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA’s premiere climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, explains how public scientists are compensated saying, “Our salaries do not depend on how much research the government funds. Government scientists get paid for working 40 hours week, regardless of how long they work.”
To prevent politically motivated terminations, public scientists (and many public employees for that matter) receive considerable protection from being fired. They have little to fear from publishing results that cut across the grain since neither their compensation nor their job security depends on it.
Private climate scientists, on the other hand, are often employed by universities and must actively seek their own research funding. One common source is America’s collection of federal science agencies. There are many, but one of the most prominent is the National Science Foundation, an agency which supports about 20% of all federally funded basic research conducted in US universities. Its funding process is typical of agencies of this kind, so it is worth examining its appropriations process in greater detail.
Scientists apply for research grants by first submitting a research proposal. According to NSF criteria, successful proposals must demonstrate that their prospective research be of high academic quality, have high and hopefully broad significance, and preferably be transformative. Proposals are merit-reviewed by a panel of independent experts in the field and the top submissions receive grants to continue their work. This process is highly competitive. Of the approximately 45,000 proposals received each year, the NSF only funds about 11,500.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, between 97% and 98% of climate scientists actively publishing in the field currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity. A plausible alternative to this consensus would register as a significant scientific accomplishment. Its existence could significantly transform our view of the world and is exactly the type of result the NSF seeks to achieve. So-called “climate skeptics” , therefore, are not penalized in the grant process. If their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.
There are other factors that weigh in a climate skeptic’s favor. First, any scientist who can debunk a scientific paradigm (as Einstein did with his general theory of relativity) in favor of a better theory will earn global prestige. The possibility of seeing one’s name in a science textbook is a huge incentive to challenge the status quo. Second, if a professor has tenure she needn’t fear reprisal from her employer for conducting controversial research. Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators. This mitigates consensus groupthink. Fourth, scientists are skeptical by nature. They assume their knowledge is incomplete and are always acting to refine it. Scientists will tell you that one of the most exciting events for them is when an experimental result completely defies theoretical expectation. It is in these moments that new truths are often revealed. Scientists yearn for these moments. They do not penalize the search for them.
There is also a simple practical issue. For appropriators to offer preferential treatment to “pro-climate change” research proposals they would need to know the results of the research before it is conducted. And even if you suspect incoming research proposals must tacitly accept anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist, an organization dedicated to explaining peer reviewed climate change research, reveals that approximately half of climate research papers do not explicitly endorse the consensus opinion, but rather function primarily as fact-finding missions. Those missions in total have created the consensus opinion, but scientists did not have to assume it before receiving their funding.
The other method by which private scientists obtain research support is by courting private donors and corporations who have a vested interest in it. For lots of basic research, this process of pitching for funds is a huge hassle. As the Microsoft computer scientist and Turing Award winner Jim Gray once put it, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a prince.
Except in certain cases the prince comes to you. Mitigating climate change requires a reorganization of large sectors of our economy. Consequently, corporations that stand to suffer financially in the transition have a strong incentive to spread disinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so.
In such cases, the exact opposite of Limbaugh’s argument is proven true. Scientists willing to research alternatives to anthropogenic climate change often receive funding because they reject the consensus opinion. In fact, research from the Global Warming Policy Foundation has found that in an analysis of 900 papers supporting climate change skepticism, 90% of the authors were linked to ExxonMobil.
As Dr. Hansen argues, “Perhaps, instead of questioning the motives of scientists, you should turn around and check the interests (motives) of the people who have pushed you to become so agitated.”
Once the public understands the true manner in which climate science is funded, it will ultimately need to ask itself which is more likely - that A) 97% of all active climate scientists have independently come together to collectively pull the wool over the world’s eyes and perpetrate the greatest scientific hoax of all time for unclear motives or B) moneyed interests like oil and coal companies who stand to lose profit in a world that addresses climate change are spreading doubt and disinformation as a means to forestall action.
Given the current state of media in the United States, the condition in which we find ourselves is not altogether surprising. Thinner margins have driven many newspapers and other news outlets to lay off dedicated science reporters. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, ratings reign supreme and viewers are more likely to tune into conflict and controversy than a nuanced discussion of the facts. Even when climate science is given the coverage it deserves, the media will often mistake journalistic balance with “hearing all sides of an issue.” Granting climate skeptics equal air time with members of the 97% majority is akin to presenting the opinions of an Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened.
Ultimately, it will fall upon scientists to lift the haze of misunderstanding that surrounds their work. They will need to be more vocal in communicating not just the science, but the process of practicing science. Only when the public gains an understanding of the scientific process will the claims of Limbaugh and his sympathizers be exposed be exposed as the myths that they are.