How is climate change funded, researched, studied, and reported?
… and, how much trust and reliability can be put in that process?
With an issue as important as climate change, it’s a fair question to ask.
In this guide, we’ve decided to play devil’s advocate to the process, and see if there might be any question marks or asterisks.
We look at issues such as potential bias, conflict of interest, and more.
*Note – this guide is written as an exploratory and impartial guide only. It is not meant to conclude one thing or another.
Summary – Can We Trust Climate Change Funding, Research/Study, & Reporting?
On one hand, there is a consensus:
… there are thousands of studies on climate change, from various sources and organisations, across many countries, that support a consensus that human emissions are the primary cause of the recent climate warming trend
However, questioning that consensus:
… there are questions skeptics ask about factors such as bias and conflicts of interest in funding
Is there an ideological, political or financial conflict of interest or agenda for example?
It might be implied that bias or conflict of interest shouldn’t be assumed – but rather used as a starting point for discussion or further investigation
Climate science might be more complex in some ways than research in other areas of science
But, you could also say that it’s still possible for anyone to say that any type of study or research on any controversial topic like GMOs, vaccines etc. is questionable or has external agendas i.e. bias, conflict of interest, individual political and corporate agendas, and other potential research and funding issues can be asked of many areas of science, not just climate science.
Some general summary notes on funding, research/study, and reporting:
There could be questionable financial interests – usually the government, or industry/corporations
Any conflict of interest by any funding organization should be disclosed in the disclosure notes of a study, and all funding organizations should be subject to this – not just certain funders
Researchers should be impartial, and independent – and should not have a conflict of interest, or bias – they should have to specify their political and ideological support and beliefs [political and ideological bias might be a bigger issues than funding bias]
Most climate science is easily replicable using publicly available data sets and models (unlike research related to food and drug safety and environmental contaminants)
There should be pre-agreed protections in place for researchers so they face no damage to their career or reputation for any pre approved type of research
Attention should be paid as to how much government money go towards what type of climate study, and the same for fossil fuel and energy company funding, and any private funding – who’s money is going where?
There were collapses on the consensus regarding cholesterol and heart disease – so some use this to say more challenges should be made on the climate change consensus
The notion of cascading systemic bias might be a big gap in science that needs to be studied more
There’s 15 potential practices of funding induced bias (they are each listed in the information below)
A potential problem with research is that the performance goals for researchers and institutes don’t align with the truth, but rather with income, employment and the correct political alignment
Funding a broader spectrum of research that challenges the politically preferred outcomes might be a way for more people to trust geosciences and social sciences
Fully independent funding and research doesn’t exist – everyone has some type of political, ideological, or funding factor that could subjectively seen as bias
Intellectual and political diversity, as well as funding diversity might be a way to get around this
Would significant fossil fuel company funding for researchers earn the trust of climate change skeptics?
Climate science research can learn a lot from the extensive experiences and track record of the health/nutrition research interaction with industry funding
Separating conflicts of interest and funding disclosures might be a good approach for all studies and research
Common themes of developing a consensus [in research across many sectors and parts of society are] are cherry picking of data, stacking of committees, conflicts of interest and other sources of bias
The role of human psychology and cognitive bias such as group think, witch hunting those who go against the consensus/norm of their peers and communities – might be underrated and not given enough attention in research
Conflict of interest issues for climate science are far more complex and less easily identified than the financial conflicts existing in the medical field
To avoid bias, scientists and researchers might periodically challenge their assumptions and findings
Overconfidence in climate research and findings might play a part because there appears to be little accountability or consequences for being proven wrong
Overconfidence can be damaging though – the public has to live with inappropriate decisions based on this overconfident information
Some argue that the IPCC and particularly the NCA introduces systemic bias through the assessment process, including consensus seeking – some say the climate science community needs to do a lot better and address this far more heavily
The issue of systemic bias introduced by institutional constraints and guidelines is a concern
Overall, scientists and researchers might need better ways for justifying arguments and assessing uncertainty, confidence and ignorance
Apart from having diverse researchers, scientists and authors with different political and ideological preferences and beliefs, and having diverse funding sources, the assessors need to do their homework and read tons of papers, consider multiple perspectives, understand sources of and reasons for disagreement, play ‘devils advocate’, and ask ‘how could we be wrong?’
We may want to prevent bootstrapping on previous assessments and then inflating the confidence without justification
Dividing summary notes into the individual subtopics:
Potential conflict of interest in funding …
There might be undisclosed conflict of interests of parties providing funding – particularly fossil fuel (and energy) companies, different political parties from the government, etc.
Any potential conflicts of interest should be made clear to the public and decision makers, and should be disclosed in journals they are submitted to
Conflicts of interest can be subjective – only some interests may be provable as objectively a conflict to the outcome of the research findings
Even if it can be proved a researcher is funded by a company or a federal government with clear financial, political or other interests, it doesn’t prove that the study or research is definitely bias or serving an agenda. It’s simply a starting point for discussion
Climate science is easily replicable using publicly available data sets and models (unlike food, drug safety and environmental contaminant research)
There’s potential individual researchers may feel alienated, be criticized and even have career prospects damaged for study findings that go against the consensus
Funding should not push research in the direction one ideology or political agenda (or financial interest), but should fund a broad spectrum of research that challenges the politically preferred outcomes (i.e. greater intellectual and political diversity)
Potential bias in federal funding …
There’s 15 potential practices of funding induced bias that can be systemically applied to most types of research and funding (and could be applied to climate research)
There can be a conflict of interest for researchers and research organizations to get research dollars
Potential industry funding bias …
There’s no fully independent source of funding in climate science
It’s hard to prove one funding source is objectively more bias than another
Funding is probably a smaller source of bias than peer pressure to follow a consensus and to defend your own hypothesis
Independent scientists with completely independent funding may be the answer for more trustworthy independent research
We can learn from the history of research in other fields like health/nutrition research to see what some potential patterns or trends occurring in climate research might be occurring and why
Sources of funding are only one source of potential bias in the research process
Overall, bias in sciences is something that probably needs far more discussion and investigation – not just in climate research
Confluence vs conflict of interest …
There should be a distinction between source of funding and conflict of interest
Manufacturing consensus …
There’s common practices and themes in regards to manufacturing consensus in any research field that can systematically be analyzed with climate science
If you are going to argue manufacturing of consensus in climate science, then, the same claims can be made in medical research for the same thing (and other fields)
A consensus can be wrong (as was the case with cholesterol and heart disease) – it needs to be continually be challenged to avoid bias and conflicts of interest in research
Overconfidence in climate change …
A better job might need to be done in dealing with uncertainty, confidence and ignorance in regards to the arguments and assessments made in climate change
More Information On Questioning Climate Change Funding, Research/Study, & Reporting
*Note – the following is a number of summaries (with added or edited modifications or comments, direct quotes, and paraphrasing of work done by Judith Curry.
You can find links to the full and complete work below, or in the sources section.
Do not take anything below as what is being implied or said directly by Judith.
It’s simply a summary of what we think is some of the more relevant or important information from her content)
Conflicts of interest in climate science …
There can be undisclosed financial interests in parties providing funding – which are usually the government (federal government in the US), or industry/commercial companies (such as fossil fuel companies)
[Direct quote…] “Companies with a direct financial interest in climate and air quality standards are funding environmental research that influences state and federal regulations and shapes public understanding of climate science. These conflicts should be clear to stakeholders, including policymakers who use scientific information to make decisions.”
[It could be said] researchers should be impartial, and not have any ties (financial or otherwise) to any party or company, and must not have a conflict of interest
… truth in testimony rules require witnesses to disclose government funding sources, but not private or corporate funding. Under Republican control, the rules are unevenly implemented, with not-for-profit witnesses required to submit pages of additional disclosures, while corporate-sector witnesses are not
Apart from expecting scientists to describe funding sources in the Acknowledgements [section], many journals don’t even have any conflict of interest disclosure requirements.
[what constitutes a ] Conflict [of interest] is often in the eye of the beholder … and researchers often accept all kinds of funding that doesn’t necessarily skew their peer-reviewed publications.
How do you properly address and police conflicts of interest [or non conflicts of interest]? – this is a relevant question to consider …
The intense politicization of climate science [might make] bias more likely to be coming from political and ideological perspectives than from funding sources. Unlike research related to food and drug safety and environmental contaminants, most climate science is easily replicable using publicly available data sets and models. So [it’s all likely] a red herring in the field of climate science research.
Scientists [should] pay attention to conflict of interest guidelines for journals [they are submitting papers to] … [they should] select journals that have COI disclosure requirements that are consistent with [their] comfort level.
… [it might be said that] biases in testimony related to climate change are more likely to be ideological and political than related to funding.
Witch hunts could exist to smear people’s names and to hurt their careers/means of making money in studies on climate science
The reality is that fossil fuel money is all over climate research … [there’s a] prominence of oil companies in funding the American Geophysical Union … The Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy take fossil fuel money … The UKMetOffice has stated that energy companies are major customers.
In truth, the overwhelming majority of climate-research funding comes from the federal government and left-wing foundations. And while the energy industry funds both sides of the climate debate, the government/foundation monies go only toward research that advances the warming regulatory agenda. With a clear public-policy outcome in mind, the government/foundation gravy train is a much greater threat to scientific integrity.
With federal research funding declining … academics at universities are being encouraged to obtain funding from industry
It can be much easier for a scientist just to ‘go along’ with the consensus on climate change considering what might be the effects they experience if they don’t
The collapse of the consensus regarding cholesterol and heart disease reminds us that for scientific progress to occur, scientists need to continually challenge and reassess the evidence and the conclusions drawn from the evidence.
There’s a possible emotional toll on being in the minority/not in the consensus with climate change findings … as well as a reputation, and possibly career toll, [as well as a threat to livelihood if an individual doesn’t have a stable career]
Is federal funding biasing climate research? …
Federal funding in climate science has potential for bias
“the fact remains that the Federal Government funds a lot of research, most of it directly related to agency missions, programs and paradigms. In some areas, especially regulatory science, Federal funding is by far the dominant source. Clearly the potential for funding-induced bias exists in these cases.”
“In the climate change debate there have been allegations of bias at each of the stages described above. Taken together this suggests the possibility that just such a large scale amplifying cascade has occurred or is occurring. Systematic research is needed to determine if this is actually the case.”
“The notion of cascading systemic bias, induced by government funding, does not appear to have been studied much. This may be a big gap in research on science. Moreover, if this sort of bias is indeed widespread then there are serious implications for new policies, both at the Federal level and within the scientific community itself.”
There’s about 15 Potential Practices of Funding-Induced Bias – Funding agency programs that have a biased focus, Agency Strategic Plans, RFPs, etc., with an agenda, not asking the right questions, Biased peer review of research proposals, Biased selection of research proposals by the agency program, Preference for modelling using biased assumptions, Biased peer review of journal articles and conference presentations, Biased meta-analysis of the scientific literature, Failure to report negative results, Manipulation of data to bias results, Refusing to share data with potential critics, Asserting conjectures as facts, False confidence in tentative findings, Exaggeration of the importance of findings by researchers and agencies, Amplification of exaggeration by the press, More funding with an agenda, building on the above, so the cycle repeats and builds – go to the full link above to read all the descriptions for the 15 practices
The challenge for the federal funding agencies is this – how to fund mission relevant ‘use inspired research’ (e.g. Pasteur’s quadrant) without biasing the research outcomes.
Here is how $$ motivates what is going on … ‘Success’ to individual researchers, particularly at the large state universities, pretty much equates to research dollars – big lab spaces, high salaries, institutional prestige, and career advancement (note, this is not so true at the most prestigious universities, where peer recognition is the biggest deal). At the Program Manager level within a funding agency, ‘success’ is reflected in growing the size of your program (e.g. more $$) and having some high profile results (e.g. press releases). At the agency level, ‘success’ is reflected in growing, or at least preserving, your budget. Aligning yourself, your program, your agency with the political imperatives du jour is a key to ‘success’.
Perhaps the Republican distrust of the geosciences and social sciences can be repaired if the agencies, programs and scientists work to demonstrate that they are NOT biased, by funding a broader spectrum of research that challenges the politically preferred outcomes.
Industry funding and bias …
In climate change research, there is no righteous/fully independent source of funding, and it can be direct or indirect bias
… government funding can be a source of bias just as much as industry funding can, and there is A LOT more government funding out there. The need for greater intellectual (and political) diversity in climate change research is needed
That said, funding is probably a smaller source of bias than peer pressure to follow a consensus and to defend your own hypothesis, not to mention political preferences, environmental proclivities and career pressures.
If independent scientists obtain funding from power and oil companies, would this help support needed intellectual diversity into climate science to avoid the massive groupthink we now see?
There is a lot we can learn by the extensive experiences and track record of the health/nutrition research interaction with industry funding.
We need to have a serious discussion about bias in scientific research, and sources of funding is only one part of this discussion.
But witch hunts related to funding, even if unrelated to research, is a very disturbing trend [there are parallels to the GMO world of research]
‘Confluence’, not conflict of interest in general research …
[there should be a distinction between the] source of funding, and the conflict of interests.
A scientist serving on the advisory board of a green advocacy group, or a libertarian think tank [for example], reflects a confluence of interest with that group. Which is the chicken and which is the egg in causing a ‘conflict’ is not clear. By the same token, a scientist who is offered research funding from an industrial source is viewed as having a confluence of interest with that source.
So, do [disclosures in research] eliminate bias? [it’s doubtful] but it can help identify bias. If you are going to enforce disclosure … the manner of disclosure reflected in the JAMA article – separating conflicts of interest and funding disclosures [is strongly supported as the best approach]
‘Manufacturing consensus [with regards to clinical guidelines and parlaying that into climate science]’
Common themes of developing a consensus [in research] are cherry picking of data, stacking of committees, conflicts of interest and other sources of bias.
While the medical community has been grappling with these issues for decades (arguably with mixed success), the climate community has only begun grappling with these issues in the wake of climate-gate. Conflict of interest recommendations made by the InterAcademy Council are being addressed by the IPCC in a minimal way.
The lesson for climate scientists is that the consensus can be wrong, and many scientists will go along with it to avoid censure by their peers. The conflict of interest issues for climate science are far more complex and less easily identified than the financial conflicts existing in the medical field.
Regardless of the presence or not of formally defined conflicts of interest, scientists need to continually challenge their assumptions to avoid bias.
About ‘overconfidence [in the national climate assessment]
… overconfidence seems to ‘pay’ in terms of influence of an individual in political debates about science [and there doesn’t seem to be consequences for it. It’s] the public who has to live with inappropriate decisions based on this overconfident information
Cognitive biases in the context of an institutionalized consensus building process have arguably resulted in the consensus becoming increasingly confirmed …
There are numerous strategies that have been studied and employed to help avoid overconfidence in scientific judgments. However, the IPCC and particularly the NCA introduces systemic bias through the assessment process, including consensus seeking.
As a community, we need to do … a LOT better. The IPCC actually reflects on these issues in terms of carefully considering uncertainty guidance and selection of a relatively diverse group of authors, although the core problems still remain. The NCA appears not to reflect on any of this, resulting in a document with poorly justified and overconfident conclusions.
Climate change is a very serious issue — depending on your perspective, there will be much future loss and damage from either climate change itself or from the policies designed to prevent climate change. … we need to think better, with better ways justifying our arguments and assessing uncertainty, confidence and ignorance.
Sub-personal biases are unavoidable, although as scientists we should work hard to be aware and try to overcome these biases. Multiple scientists with different perspectives can be a big help, but it doesn’t help if you assign a group of ‘pals’ to do the assessment. The issue of systemic bias introduced by institutional constraints and guidelines is of greatest concern.
The task of synthesis and assessment is an important one, and it requires some different skills than a researcher pursuing a narrow research problem. First and foremost, the assessors need to do their homework and read tons of papers, consider multiple perspectives, understand sources of and reasons for disagreement, play ‘devils advocate’, and ask ‘how could we be wrong?’
Instead, what we see in at least some of the sections of the NCA4 is bootstrapping on previous assessments and then inflating the confidence without justification.
Potential Points Made By Both Climate Change Supporters & Skeptics
Read more about the potential points made by climate change supporters and skeptics in these guide:
- Agreeing With The Current Consensus On Climate Change (Potential Arguments Of A Supporter)
- Challenging The Current Consensus On Climate Change (Potential Arguments Of A Skeptic)