As a scientist myself (or at least an apprentice), it utterly confounds me when climate deniers argue that scientists only pretend to believe in climate change because their research grants depend on it. These arguments are not only slanderous, but expose a deep misunderstanding of how scientists receive funding.
In general, there are two classes of scientist, public and private. Public scientists are paid a salary through government institutions like NASA or NOAA. As laid out in yesterday’s comments from James Hansen, these scientists are compensated regardless of the outcome of their research, thus there exists no financial incentive to skew results one way or the other.
Private climate scientists are often employed by universities and must actively seek out research funding. One potential source is our nation’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 I’ll discuss its allocation process in greater detail.
Scientists may 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.
One thing you’ll notice is that research into a plausible alternative theory to human-driven climate change satisfies all of these criteria. Given that 97% of climate scientists currently agree with the conclusion that global climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity, a plausible alternative theory clearly constitutes a great scientific advancement, one which would generate waves in many other fields. So not only are climate deniers not penalized in the grant process, if their proposals demonstrate legitimate scientific merit they might actually receive preferential treatment.
There are other factors which serve to support climate deniers. 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 prestige and his name in science textbooks. This is a huge incentive. Second, if a professor has tenure, then he needn’t fear reprisal from his employer should his research cut across the grain. Third, because review panels are comprised of a broad selection of experts, one can expect a representative plurality of opinions to be held by appropriators, which 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.
The final point I’ll make about the public grant process is simple common sense. It’s functionally impossible for allocators to only fund “pro-climate change” research when the results of that research are unknown until it’s conducted! And even if you think all proposals coming in tacitly acknowledge anthropogenic global climate change a priori, meta-publication data gathered by Skeptical Scientist 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 famous 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 sometimes the prince comes to you. Because climate change requires corrective actions, corporations that stand to lose in the transition have a strong incentive to spread misinformation themselves or fund others willing to do so. This is a clear example of climate deniers’ arguments working against them. There are many examples of scientists who 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.
At the end of the day you ultimately need to ask yourself which is more likely: that A) 97% of all 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 disinformation to forestall action.
Given the current condition of media coverage in the United States, it’s not surprising that so much skewed information abounds. First, many media agencies like newspapers release dedicated science reporters as margins grow thinner. Second, the media often mistakes balance with “hearing all side of an issue.” Granting climate deniers equal air time with members of the 97% majority would be like presenting the opinions of a Auschwitz survivor alongside someone who argues the Holocaust never happened. Third, the media (television and radio especially) has an incentive to create conflict for ratings.
Ultimately, though, scientists owe it to themselves and to the general public to lift the haze of confusion that surrounds their work. The public ought to know how its tax dollars are being spent, the valuable research it supports, and the mechanism by which scientists are funded. Combining this with greater knowledge about the skeptical nature of the scientific process would go a long way towards exposing scientific partially, greed, and impropriety as the myth that it is.
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