Editorial, Staunton, Va. News Leader,Aug 2, 2006
We'll give Patrick J. Michaels, Virginia's state climatologist, bonus points for his straightforwardness. He's been up front about asking business leaders for money to fund his research challenging the concept of global warming and has made no attempt to conceal the fact that coal-burning utilities have given him money to accomplish the same goal. That said, we're not sure that someone as determined as Michaels is to prove a theory whose outcome is so important for his benefactors ought to be state climatologist.
Whether his credentials as a professor or a scientist are tainted by his funding sources is a question for greater minds than ours to sort out -- but judging from some of the comments we've read from other scientists, notably at the online publication Inside Higher Ed -- Michaels is considered to be on shaky ethical ground.
First, some background.
Michaels is a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and was appointed state climatologist in 1980 by Republican Gov. John N. Dalton. He is, to put it mildly, unconvinced that global warming poses a threat to the planet. That mind-set has endeared him to people in the utilities industries, notably the Intermountain Rural Electric Association. Inside Higher Ed notes a letter from Stanley R. Lewandowski, IREA's general manager, asking other coal-burning utilities to contribute to Michaels' research:
"Al Gore and others state that the scientific community has reached consensus," the letter reads. "That is simply not true ... we cannot allow the discussion to be monopolized by alarmists."
What bothers us here is the apparent pollution of scientific research with money given by people with a stake in a particular outcome. There is an undeniable tendency, when funding comes from such a source, to provide results that will keep the funding streams coming. It's apparent that IREA and others like them are not interested in news that will be bad for their bottom line.
The issue for us here is not whether global warming exists or not. Proving or disproving that theory ought to be a function of pure research. The issue, quite frankly, is also too important for humankind as a whole to leave in the hands of lobbyists or corporate greedheads. If global warming does exist, we need to work together as a planet to halt it if we can. Our collective bottom lines depend on it.
Whether Michaels has crossed an ethical line as a researcher isn't clear to us but we don't think someone as beholden to private concerns and funding as he appears to be serves the best interests of all Virginians. Michaels' role as state climatologist a role that we feel ought to be completely neutral seems compromised by his other interests.