Monday, February 23, 2015

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Hi-Jinks 4

It just keeps on coming.  Anymore of this and Eli will have to be hospitalized for acute giggles. Chris Mooney at the Washington Post does everyone a service by calling out Willie Soon's research as the fantasy that it is, but buried deep at the top of his article are some interesting quotes

According to a statement from the Smithsonian, Soon is “a part-time researcher at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory,” and the institution is “greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research.” The acting secretary of the Smithsonian, Albert Horvath, “has asked the Smithsonian Inspector General to review the matter.
A twofer.  Last, the real auditors are being called in, and when they get their hands on the budgets Eli suspects that Charles Alcock, Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is going to have an interesting time explaining how indirect cost money that was originally going to be used to cover institutional operating expenses got converted to discretionary donations under his control.

But that's not all folks.  First, after looking at the grant awards and budgets, Eli was thinking that even with the Koch money and the Southern Money and the Donors Trust money, Willie was not covering his salary, and indeed here is proof.  They list him as part time.  Worse, anybunny with a calculator can see that his institutional base salary was not much at all, a bit less than 100K.  Each grant/contract was for three, four months at max and anybunny can do the math on that.  With overhead and fringes the Smithsonian was actually pulling in more money that Willie Soon.  Were there other non-Smithsonian sources that Dr. Soon was taping?  $50-75K is not much to live on in the Boston area.  Perhaps speaking fees?

From the Smithsonian Facebook page, where such things are found
The Smithsonian is greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research.

The Smithsonian is taking immediate action to address the issue: Acting Secretary Albert Horvath has asked the Smithsonian Inspector General to review the matter. Horvath will also lead a full review of Smithsonian ethics and disclosure policies governing the conduct of sponsored research to ensure they meet the highest standards.

Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon is a part-time researcher at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. He was hired to conduct research on long-term stellar and solar variability. The Smithsonian does not fund Dr. Soon; he pursues external grants to fund his research.

The Smithsonian does not support Dr. Soon’s conclusions on climate change. The Smithsonian’s official statement on climate change, based upon many decades of scientific research, points to human activities as a cause of global warming.
Of course, they were quite happy to accept the funding, but now the Smithsonian has tossed Willie Soon under the bus.  Will he have the company of those who thought it was a good thing?


Pinko Punko said...

What the heck is the indirect rate for for this research- what overhead is even required beyond an office and a computer? My goodness.

EliRabett said...

Heat, electricity, cleaning, etc. Commercial rental rates in Cambridge near Harvard are ~$50/sq ft. Drug Monkey is right on the money on this issue, but the fact is that Alcock moved the money into his accounts not the Smithsonians

Taylor B said...

Maybe Soon's other part-time job is at the Non-governmental Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at the Heartland Institute?

JohnMashey said...

Well Antony Watts got $250 plus expenses for speaking at DDP, bit Soon was their favorite invite, so maybe he got more. Also, Watts' talk was mostly inspired by Matt Ridley.

Everett F Sargent said...

Where I use to work the total hourly cost factor was closer to 3 than 2.

So, say I got $40/hr, the cost charged to the job was much closer to $120 than $80.

I liked the job but hated the management. PRIP, build something, and you pay back forever, those guys were not proper money managers. They even tried to compare government overhead to private sector overhead, ROTFLMFAO (well I didn't actually do that at that time, but it was really funny)!

I'm retired now, so that I can say whatever I want to say, I'm not in need of a job from anyone.

Brian said...

The problem with moving the money to Alcock's discretion is that the fossil fuel funders are allowing some of their money to be spent on things unrelated to their interest. What do they get in return? Maybe a little less scrutiny? Doesn't have to be a stated thing, just an incentive to be a little loose.

Everett F Sargent said...


DOD has as of today not passes a full government audit (FY16 or FY17 is the hoped for timeframe).

As far as moving money around, between labs, outside contracting and job numbers, let me just say it was like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It was accepted practice for the management.

t_p_hamilton said...

I noticed the amount of salary for Soon was small as well. That is a mystery. At that salary Soon would have to BBQ his co-resident rodents under the sidewalk steam grates.

Nick Stokes said...

"Eli was thinking that even with the Koch money and the Southern Money and the Donors Trust money, Willie was not covering his salary, and indeed here is proof."

I think he used his time efficiently. From his 2011 Donors Trust report. And from his 2012 Southern Company Services report, bis.

izenmeme said...

I see W Soon has pointed to the low income from his research funding to claim that it would not be enough to bias his research.

This seems to imply that because of his personal bias the funding sources got their deliverables on the cheap.

EliRabett said...

The question now shifts to what his non CfA support is? The Breakthrough Institute? Heartland?

Everett F Sargent said...

His wife (who looks like Willard Anthony Watts sans the Village People 'stache)? His offspring (who look like Willard Anthony Watts with the Village People 'stache)? His pets (who look like UCS member Kenji Watts The Insult Climate Dog)?

Seriously though, all we do know is that he is 'part-time' at CfA, going all 'doG of the gapes' when dealing with an indeterminate system ...

Unknown said...

Overhead, aka Indirect Costs, is a hot button item on the campus of research institutions. The faculty (including tenured and non-tenure-track and research faculty) regard it as an administrative rip-off. We, the researchers, are like the feudal peasants, and the administrators are like the feudal lords, living off the overhead. The issue is like medical malpractice, as seen by doctors and lawyers. It's like abortion.

There really are indirect costs - costs that are incurred because you have a research effort. This includes utilities (heating, conditioning), building maintenance and repair, computer services, water, etc etc. It adds up. At universities, overhead rates are at least 50%. That means to spend $1000 in direct costs you need to charge $500 in indirect costs, making total project costs $1,500.

Overhead rates are always negotiated. In the negotiations, universities demonstrate the indirect costs that have been incurred to justify their charging overhead.


There is no requirement that the university use the overhead to (for example) repair the building. They can just neglect maintenance of the building, and use the money instead of paving a parking lot.
What?? You don't believe that a parking lot is a research expense?? Researchers use the parking lot, so it must be a research expense.

Once the overhead has been collected from the sponsor, the funds have been laundered, and can be used for just about anything. Sad but true.

At Stanford a few decades ago, the president's yacht was deemed to be a research expense.(well, why not? it's not a teaching expense, so it must be research. Besides, the President threw parties for big donors on his yacht).

D.J. Andrews said...

A number of years back, a large west coast university took quite a large proportion of our funds for overhead, etc. The problem was that we weren't using any of the university's rooms, equipment, heat, hydro, library, computers because all work was conducted in the Arctic; the researcher (who was retired but still associated with the university because he was a big name) spent most of the year on another continent doing work for another university/research center (at least that one didn't put their hands out asking for our money although they actually had more right to ask than the west coast one since a great deal of prep work and writing/data analysis was done there).

Fergus Brown said...

From an outside-of-academia perspective, these numbers on overhead are a joke. Whether working in the senior management team of a small business or acting freelance, incorporating an overhead on this scale would get someone fired.
Of course you could to the DIY approach of calculating the operating costs of the institution relative to the turnover to generate a percentage then add that to each piece of funding pro rata. Bet it wouldn't come out at 50%.

John Farley said...

Earlier I referred to Stanford University and its overhead "issue a couple of decades ago" You can find out more by googling

stanford university overhead yacht

and you'll get plenty. Stanford's overhead rate was 70%, while most other universities are around 55%.

The 55% figure may strike you as large, but the contract mills that live on nothing but grants and contracts have higher rates, some over 100%.
(Math lesson: if the overhead rate is 100%, it doesn't mean that the administrators get every penny. It means you need charge the grant $200 to have $100 in direct costs.)

Here's an overhead horror story from the University of Chicago a couple of decades ago. A researcher wanted to rent a specialized piece of equipment from a DOE lab for 20 days at $1000/day, total $20,000. BUT then the DOE lab wanted to charge overhead. AND the university wanted to charge overhead also. INCLUDING the university wanted to charge overhead on DOE's overhead. That brought the total cost to $60,000. (When I think about this, even after all these years, my head is about to explode.) At that point the researcher made other arrangements to avoid being held up.

Russell Seitz said...

Willies MO seems to be

1. Point to shining observatory on a hill and promise client bombshell paper as basis for global market-moving ad campaign

2. Recruit unknown Postdoc from Podunk as corresponding author

3. Submit crap paper to pay-for-play journal with English as a Second Language reviewers.

3. Send paper and small check to journal

4. Release press release as soon as small check clears

5. Deliver copy to science illiterate PR VP of client and collect large check minus overhead.

6. Check into Pierre and order champagne and DVD of Mad Men Season Six from room service

Taylor B said...

If Soon's papers were Hollywood screenplays (as they might as well be), Russell could be the rewrite Dr. Well done, Russell! Unfortunately, Soon is his own alternate reality show.

Ethan Vishniac said...

I think it's a fundamental error to think that Dr. Soon is insincere. Both the modest level of support and the nature of his comments indicate that he really believes that he is conducting important scientific research and will eventually be recognized accordingly.

That this is obviously delusional is not remarkable. There are many such people with lower profiles who have the misfortune not to work for the fossil fuel industry.

The real question is why the CfA is lending its name to his work. It's not astrophysics. It looks like a cynical attempt to cash in. The most charitable interpretation is that they haven't been paying attention.

Taylor B said...

Not that I'd wish that job on you, Russell. I do enjoy your satire as well as insights.

Taylor B said...

Lawrence Berkeley Lab confirms it's the CO2, not Willie Soon's sunspots, by direct measurement of CO2's warming effect:

Will this stop Soon, Watts, and other deniers from persisting in their denial? I wouldn't bet on it.

Russell Seitz said...

Ethan, the general rule is that soft money tends to generate soft science.

Naomi Oreskes real problem is being in denial about her metier-- what's wrong with being a vice presidential advertising historian?

EliRabett said...

although the amount was trivial, the overhead/DDF money was in unmarked bills. It is really, really, really hard to find such honeypots at Unis.

Everett F Sargent said...

I've been noticed by the WTFUWT? kooks:

Rabett Run blog-post “Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics–Hijinks 4″, February 23, 2015 blog-post comment by a certain Everette F. Sargent, in relation to Prof. “Willie” Soon:

“His wife [Prof Soon’s] (who looks like the Willard Anthony Watts sans the Village People ‘stache)? His his offspring who looks like the Village People with ‘stache?”

So what sort of “ideology” would compel someone like Everette F. Sargent to make fun of the personal appearance of another man’s wife and son? Let me add that in another comment, the Sargent, snout-piece hive-orifice advises that he’s “retired” so he hardly has the excuse that he’s some sort of “dumb kid” being stupid. Rather, Sargent’s remarks, we can well imagine, are the product of a well-considered, life-long immersion in the hive’s group-think, and all that implies.

And what to think of Eli Rabbet who would permit such a comment on his blog? While previously I had estimated Eli to be a crusty, ol’ fart lefty of the old-school–tough, bare-knuckles, stand-up,–but infused with a sense of bourgeois-nostalgic decency, I now see otherwise. My clarified perception is that he’s a contemptible, low-life piece of bunny, loose-stool, whatever-it-takes lefty-scat.

Professor Soon’s family has never been promoted as public persons, Eli and Sargent, you slime-ball pieces of shit! So where do you you two lefty-puke assholes get off on going after a man’s wife and children?

C’mon over to this blog (I’m sure Watts will permit the same) and let’s have it out, scum-bags! Double dare you!, Fuck You!!, and “YO MOMMA!!!”


I did contemplate, at that time, that it was a just a little wee 'bit' over the top.

Bernard J. said...

If anyone has any doubt about the association between Soon's funding sources and his outcomes, one has only to look at the nature of his conclusions and the quality (ahem) of the science that underpins them.

There's only one reason that I can see for someone to be paid to produce those results, and independent, reputable science would not seem to be it...

Steve Bloom said...

Right, Bernard, the critical point re Soon is the consistent poor quality of his work, amounting to proof that the deliverables were indeed deliverable notwithstanding Smithsonian management having preferred to look the other way for so many years.

Re the overhead issue, is it likely the case that Soon's benefits get paid out of that? In order to cover those, and of course to keep management happy, a minimum cash flow along the lines of what we see would seem to be necessary. The rest of the funds could be laundered through a suitable non-profit foundation, maintaining the tax-deductibility even while keeping Smithsonian management from taking a cut.

Susan Anderson said...

Particular thanks to John Mashey for the graphical funding matrix. I was looking for something like that a few days ago.

Hank Roberts said...

Wait, I thought you were a _civil_ engineer?