Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Fossil Fuel Interests

Nearly forty climate scientists and environmental groups are calling on museums of science and natural history to "cut all ties" with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists such as David H. and Charles G. Koch, the New York Times reports.

In an open letter, the scientists express deep concern about "the links between museums of science and natural history with those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science" and further argue that "the only ethical way forward for our museums is to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation." The letter points out that David H. Koch — who sits on the boards of the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History — controls, with his brother, the oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries, "one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States," and goes on to note that Koch has funded climate-change-denying organizations to the tune of $67 million since 1997.

"When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge," the letter states. "This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost." Signatories include climatologist James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Kevin E Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and lead author of the 2001 and 2007 IPCC climate change reports; and ecologist George Woodwell, founder and director emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center.

The letter was initiated by the Natural History Museum, a mobile museum that, according to co-founder and director Beka Economopoulos, aims to draw attention to "social and political forces that shape nature yet are left out of traditional natural history museums." An online petition sponsored by NHM and environmental groups to remove Koch from the boards of AMNH and NMNH had garnered more than twenty-seven thousand signatures as of late Tuesday. Spokespeople for both museums told the Times that donors have no influence over the content of scientific exhibits.

Eric Chivian, founder of the center for health and the global environment at Harvard Medical School and a signatory, said he was not convinced that policies barring donors from having a say in the content of exhibits are effective. "It is just human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you," said Chivian. Other scientists, however, disagree. Chris Norris, a paleontologist and blogger on museum issues, warned that if museums start removing board members or turning down donations for political or policy reasons, they risk damaging their reputation for objectivity. Doing so, Norris told theTimes, would enable "others to argue that the information they provide is partisan and not to be trusted."

John Schwartz. "Science Museums Urged to Cut Ties With Kochs." New York Times 03/24/2015.