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IPCC and the money trail

January 28, 2010

John Tierney, of the New York Times, finds himself “in the unfamiliar position of defending Al Gore and his fellow Nobel laureate, Rajendra K. Pachauri.” He’s calling out what he sees as a cheap way of scoring points in climate change arguments:

Conflict-of-interest accusations have become the simplest strategy for avoiding a substantive debate. The growing obsession with following the money too often leads to nothing but cheap ad hominem attacks.

Tierney is right that sometimes you need commercial involvement in working out how to deal with complex issues like climate change. The National Research Council in the US commonly involves industry people in the preparation of its reports. But this does not in any way resolve the quite valid questions about Pachauri’s connections, which are related to grant money and corporate profits, but also to the control of ideas and the prestige that comes with it. He basically points this out in later in the column (my emphasis):

There are, of course, notorious cases of corporate money buying predetermined conclusions, like the reports once put out by the Tobacco Institute to rebut concerns about smoking and cancer. But there has also been dubious work promoted by government agencies and foundations eager to generate publicity and advance their own agendas.

Exactly. Corporate involvement or not; money trail or not; conflict of interest is a serious issue that should be addressed by anyone in a position to give science advice.

I agree with Tierney’s points about the money trail obsession. But let’s not forget that this controversy could have been avoided if the IPCC had a policy for recognizing and dealing with conflict of interest. This is a pretty shocking oversight.

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