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Allegations Against Smithsonian Researcher Bring Attention to Harvard

By Meg P. Bernhard and Zara Zhang, Crimson Staff Writers

Although a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has come under fire amid conflict of interest allegations has no formal affiliations with Harvard, the scientist’s use of Harvard’s name on research has brought attention to the University amid the public controversy.

Wei-Hock Soon, the controversial researcher based in Cambridge who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain climate change, has accepted more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel companies in the past decade, according to documents compiled by Greenpeace. He has not disclosed the funding in multiple scientific papers, prompting recent scrutiny.

Soon, who is also called Willie, is employed part-time by the Smithsonian side of the center and has no formal affiliations with Harvard, according to Charles R. Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon is not an employee of Harvard, and there are no records indicating that he has applied for or been granted funds administered by the University, according to a statement from University spokesperson Jeff Neal quoted in multiple news outlets.

According to W. John Kress, interim undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian Institution, Soon receives payment in the form of “soft money,” or grants and contracts from external sources. About half of the external funding that Soon solicited went to his salary, and the other half went to infrastructure and administrative costs of the center, Alcock said. At the center, Soon does not formally study climate change, according to Kress.

Soon did not respond to a request for comment on his relationship with and employment at Harvard.

Alcock said the center is investigating whether Soon has violated open disclosure policies of several journals to which he has submitted articles, though he declined to say how they will discipline Soon should the allegations be found true. For now, Soon is continuing his research on solar variability at the center.

Although Soon is not a University employee, he has a Harvard email address and is searchable in the University’s public directory, and his name association with the University has prompted onlookers to turn to Harvard for a response. Soon has listed his association with the Harvard-Smithsonian on research on climate change in question, and some news outlets have referred to Soon as a “Harvard astrophysicist.”

Michael B. McElroy, a professor of environmental studies at Harvard, said it is common practice for scientists to submit journal articles without prior review by their affiliate organizations. Even so, McElroy said he thinks that Soon and Sallie Baliunas—a researcher with whom Soon co-wrote a paper—have used Harvard’s name inappropriately.

“The sense was communicated that this was a certified Harvard piece of work. But to my knowledge, neither one of them actually work for Harvard,” McElroy said.

In an emailed statement, Neal wrote that “Harvard takes the appropriate use, and the inappropriate misuse, of the University name very seriously. When made aware of a potential issue related to the misuse of the Harvard name, we communicate our expectations to the relevant individuals or organizations.”

Neal declined to comment on whether the University considers Soon’s case an inappropriate use of Harvard’s name.

Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, said it is up to the due diligence of researchers to let a university know in what capacity they intend to use its name.

“Universities control their brand image very carefully,” Lake said. “If you are going to tag your work or statements to an institution, you have to be really careful that the institution is comfortable with that and accepts that.”

Lake added that he is unsure whether the allegations against Soon will hurt Harvard in any substantive way, but he said administrators should avoid a “knee-jerk reaction” to the controversy.

According a statement issued by the Smithsonian on Sunday, the organization does not support Soon’s conclusions on climate change. Harvard has not issued a statement on Soon’s research.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at zara.zhang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @zarazhangrui.

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