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March 16th 2012 print

Tony Thomas

The Royal Society: From Science to Advocacy

Several Presidents of the Society (Lords May and Rees, and Sir Paul Nurse) took the Society into gutter-fighting against sceptics on global warming.

Britain’s Royal Society has a certain cachet. Apart from being the world’s oldest practicing science body, its presidents have included Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, and Lords Kelvin and Lister.

Even illustrious scientists are no purer souls than the next person. Newton, for example, pulled swifties as President to upstage Leibniz as inventor of the calculus. Davy bickered with his junior protégé Faraday and gave him a hard time.

All the same, to me the Royal Society was awesome (as my granddaughter would say). Alas, you can now read about the decline of the Royal Society in the past decade, thanks to a 40-page free tract “Nullius in Verba” by Andrew Montford, also the author of The Hockey Stick Illusion (Stacey Intl, 2010), and the Bishop Hill (UK) blog.

The Latin tag means “On the word of no-one”. If only…Climatologist Richard Lindzen in the foreward sums it up: “A straightforward and unembellished chronology of the perversion not only of the Royal Society but of science itself.”

In a nutshell, several Presidents of the Society (Lords May and Rees, and Sir Paul Nurse) took the Society into gutter-fighting against sceptics on global warming. In 2010 there was a revolt by 43 members who forced the Society to issue a new statement emphasizing the uncertainties. But the Society has continued to court involvement in political frays.

The story has added piquancy because Lord May is none other than one-time Sydney Boys High student Bob May. He is one of our most path-breaking scientists, though not in climate but in theoretical physics and population biology, where two of his papers have since got 4000+ citations each.  

May took the view from the outset that the Society ought to go for ‘aggressive engagement to be useful to government’. This was against the Society’s 300-year tradition to stay out of ex cathedra pronouncements on politico-scientific matters, “for these are settled far more conclusively in the laboratory than in the committee room.”  (Lord Adrian, President, 1955).

May became President in 2000. He was previously the UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. An ardent environmentalist and advocate for ‘sustainable development’, he had also been an enthusiast for the Club of Rome’s controversial ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis.

May took the Society, and national counterparts including our Australian Academy, into advocacy for the IPCC’s 2001 report and impending Kyoto Protocol for CO2 cuts. The Society’s choice of mitigation rather than adaptation shifted it from science into the political-economic arena.

May was shocked by President George W Bush’s foot-dragging on CO2 cuts, and in mid-2001 helped organized 17 national academies to lambast the Bush position: “The balance of scientific evidence demands effective steps now to avert damaging changes to Earth’s climate…” He described Bush as misguided, leading to this ripost from the US National Academy:

…having your own misinterpretation of the US Academy work widely quoted in our press has caused considerable confusion, both at (the) Academy and in our government.

Concurrently the Society began meeting to formulate policies on how to work with the media, government and environmental pressure groups to educate the public on climate change. For good or ill, the Society was now a lobby group.

Its 2005 pamphlet, “A Guide to Facts and Fictions About Climate Change”, set up and knocked down what it said were the 12 misleading arguments by sceptics. Sir John Houghton, who has likened sceptics to flat-earthers, was co-author. There was no attempt to cite any studies, to find the common ground, or to ensure the sceptic case was correctly put. Curiously, the document implicitly conceded some of the sceptic case.

The political temperature rose when the Society went on to tell journalists to play down the sceptics’ views, which were ‘distorting’ the evidence. May even described the debate as one between the entire scientific community and “a handful of people, half of them crackpots”.

In June 2005 the Society along with a dozen other academies, sent a letter to politicians saying the science was now good enough “to justify nations taking prompt action”, ie set CO2 targets.

The BBC’s environment journalist Roger Harrabin recalled some years later: “I remember Lord May leaning over and assuring me, ‘I am the President of the Royal Society, and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over.’”

In his final presidential address to the Society in 2005, May blasted what he called the “denial lobby, funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by sectors of the hydrocarbon industry”. Moreover, this lobby was of the same kind as the tobacco-is-not-harmful and the HIV-doesn’t-cause-AIDS lobbies, he said.

His successor Lord Rees was a cosomologist who had published a book on ‘sustainability’ issues. Under Rees the Society sought to co-opt economists to the cause — the Society premises were the venue for the launch and endorsement of the UK Government’s Stern Review, a controversial cost-benefit case for CO2 reductions.

From 2006 the Society began campaigning against anyone funding sceptic science. The rationale was that such funding undermined the impending 2007 IPCC report. The Society’s spokesman was its press officer Bob Ward.

Ward in mid-2006 met ExxonMobil executives and apparently got their agreement to stop funding sceptics. By September Ward was again pressuring the company, this time over a company statement that human causation was ‘very difficult to determine’ and based more on expert judgement than hard science.

Ward had analyzed ExxonMobil’s corporate gifts to US recipients and found some funds had gone to sceptics. He now wrote demanding that the company provide him with a schedule of gift-recipients in Europe so he could ‘work out which of these have been similarly providing inaccurate and misleading information’.

Ward was not acting as a loose cannon within Society headquarters, as both Rees and his predecessor May later gave him high praise as a press officer.

Ward’s letter, leaked to the Guardian, said the next IPCC report was imminent and ‘we can’t have people trying to undermine it’. A number of climate scientists protested, saying there was nothing sinister about corporate research grants to scientists.

From there the Society actively campaigned against unwelcome published climate research (some of which was later confirmed) and against the sceptic film “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. Although the UK broadcasting authority declined (by and large) to uphold complaints about the film, Rees continued to complain that the program and the TV broadcaster were irresponsible.

In a statement coinciding with the close of the 2009 Copenhagen conference,  the Society claimed, bizarrely, that there was “no such thing as safe climate change”.

By this time dozens of unconsulted Society members were choking on the Society’s line, whether from skepticism or just feeling that the Society was too partisan. Forty-three members successfully demanded that the latest Society edict on warming be revised with member input. This protest resulted in October 2010 in a new paper “Climate Change – A Summary of the Science”.

In it was no more bagging of sceptics as ratbags, and instead a measured look at certainty levels about climate knowledge. Climate sensitivity and human attribution were not so certain, while cloud influence and model-based forecasting were definitely uncertain. However, there was no acknowledgement that the Society’s previous edicts were partisan.

The following month President Rees stood down, and was replaced by Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate in genetics. Soon after, Nurse went on an offensive against sceptics, claiming that climatologists were under political attack. In the same BBC Horizons show, one of Nurse’s allies, a NASA scientist called Bob Bindschadler, dropped a clanger by saying that manmade C02 emissions dwarfed natural ones – the IPCC itself said the opposite. Neither Nurse nor the programmers noticed the gaffe.

Nurse went on to talk about the 2009 Climategate leaks, doing an interview with Climategate celebrity Professor Phil Jones and allowing Jones to obfuscate about the ‘hide the decline’ email. Nurse also pushed the fact-free argument that sceptics were using Freedom of Information requests to pummel and harass honest scientists. Various members renewed their complaints about the Society’s lack of objectivity.

Unabashed, Nurse went on to tell Nature magazine, a la May, that the Society wanted a stronger voice on contentious policy questions of the day. He urged its members to be active on reports to the government on issues such as nuclear power, climate and the definition of life. Soon after, he laid into what he called the ‘anti-science’ attitudes of the US Republicans.

A member complained:

Great science will truly inform government policy while informed opinions on science can only fuel debate. Personally I enjoy both of these aspects of being a scientist though I know which one of these actually counts. Please do not turn The Royal Society into another policy-driven quango.

In the past 50 years, the Society’s funding has been swamped with government cash – some £40-50 million a year, most of it re-circulated as grants but £2.4m a year helps pay Society salaries. That amount is 40 per cent of the Society’s unrestricted cash.

Author Montford sums up:

As the Society’s independence has disappeared, so has its former adherence to hard-nosed empirical science and a sober detachment from the political process … Gone are the doubts and uncertainties that afflict any real scientist, to be replaced with the dull certainties of the politician and the public relations man.

Montford’s document is avialable (pdf) here…