US Corporate Influence in the UK?

The Chicago based “ultra-conservative” think-tank, The Heartland Institute, known for associations with tobacco giant Philip Morris in questioning the damage of second hand smoke and for their hardline skepticism about climate change, have called for the barring of water expert Dr Peter Gleick from speaking at a lecture series in Oxford.

Gleick was in part responsible for an expose on The Heartland Institute published on the DeSmogBlog, highlighting their stance on global warming and their attempts to influence the school curriculum in the USA with regard to climate change.  Gleik’s role in obtaining documents from the think-tank is regarded as highly questionable by some, and he is currently the subject of a board investigation at the Pacific Institute: Gleik is the president and founder of the Pacific Institute and is currently on leave as president pending the result of the inquiry.

The language used by Joseph Bast – the president of The Heartland Institute – in calling for Gleick’s suspension from the lecture series is strong to say the least:

“The actions Gleick has admitted to having taken – lying repeatedly and committing fraud, and then denying responsibility and refusing to take corrective action – all make him unqualified to speak to students or as a scientist.”

“The members of the scientific community who invite him to speak are sullying their own reputations. How can you respect a scientist who committed fraud and theft? How can the public trust the veracity of Gleick’s science after his confessed deceptions? The answer to both questions is: you can’t.”

I am not condoning Gleik’s (still undetermined) role in the expose on The Heartland Institute but I think these comments are a little over the top and somewhat hypocritical.

For an organisation like The Heartland Institute who were strongly associated with the campaign to question the science of second hand smoke with tobacco giant Phillip Morris; whom are known for attacking the science behind global warming and trying to influence the teaching of climate science in schools; and whose lobbying of the US government is reported as being legally questionable; I feel they are in no position to question the integrity of Gleik.

Gleik’s method of obtaining documents from The Heartland Institute may have been morally questionable, but his reasons and his cause are not –  human impact on global warming is scientifically beyond doubt. More importantly, his scientific integrity is discreet from his actions in this instance and remains completely intact. I would be honoured to hear him speak, and would have no doubts about the veracity of his science. I hope Oxford University hold their position and do not bow down to what appears to be corporate pressure by proxy.

Check Wikipedia references and the links below for sources all all statements made here within.

Peter Gleick – Wikipedia

The Heartland Institue – Wikipedia

The Heartland Institue – Own website

General Motors Reposts EDF, Revokes The Heartland Institute – Environmental Defense Fund

The Pacific Institute – Own website

Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science – New York Times


A Skewed Morality – Dow Chemicals at London 2012

US-based Dow Chemical Company (Dow) are a major sponsor of London 2012, and as part of their sponsorship will manufacture a £7,000,000 wrap that will engulf the Olympic Stadium for the duration of the games. Dow agreed to cover the cost as part of their ‘top tier’ Olympic sponsorship deal after governmental funding was cut. Dow’s involvement in the Olympic Games has caused a furore amongst many due to their association with a major industrial accident in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Indian chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan called for a boycott of the games by Indian athletes, though a recent report suggests this is unlikely. Protests and calls for the International Olympic Committee to cut all ties with Dow have been continuous since the announcement, and Meredith Alexander a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London board quit her role live on Newsnight.

Dow are arguably the hereditary owners of responsibility for what is regarded by many as the greatest industrial disaster in history, after a take over Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in 2001; UCC were part owners of the company that owned and operated the industrial plant in Bhopal at the time of a lethal gas leak. The Bhopal disaster resulted in the region of 20,000 deaths (a conservative estimate by some accounts, an over-estimate by others) as a result of a leak of tens of tons of poison gas (a major component of which was methyl isocyanate). The long-term effects of this disaster are still very much debated, though it is without question that the people of Bhopal still live in its shadow.

At the time of the disaster the Bhopal plant was owned and run by UCIL, an  Indian company of which UCC owned just over 50%. Dow bought UCC  in 2001 after they had sold both their shares in UCIL and the plant itself, and more than ten years after the Indian Supreme Court confirmed settlement, and closed the legal proceedings associated with the liability of Union Carbide Company. Several attempts to re-open proceedings since Dow purchased UCC have failed, and Dow refuse to accept liability for the accident. I can not comment on the settlements legal validity, or whether it was conducted in an appropriate manner – and it is impossible to find an objective analysis of such an emotive topic – but it is reasonable for Dow to refute liability for an event that occurred prior to ownership, when the consequential legal investigation had been settled. Had Dow bought the company prior to settlement they should have inherited the liability as you would debt, but this was not the case.

The debate about Dow’s involvement in the Olympic Games will continue until London 2012 is over, and the issue will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, so a continued discussion is somewhat pointless. In contrast, the moral standpoint of those involved in the protests, including Meredith Alexander, is an interesting point to consider. Alexander’s desire to see

that real justice is achieved for the victims and the families of those who died.”

is admirable and shows a great deal of empathy for those that were affected by something that could now easily be forgotten nearly 30 years later. What is challenging to understand though, is why Alexander (and others in less limelight) feels that Dow are more morally reprehensible than any of the other major Olympic sponsors and associates who are reportedly involved with ongoing  human rights abuses or illegal work practices; especially considering Dow’s involvement is purely due to the acquisition of UCC.

For the Observer, Gethin Chamberlain recently reported on the abuse of staff in Bangladesh for those supplying clothing for Puma, Adidas, and Nike. Following an investigation by War on Want entitled ‘A race to the bottom’, he reported exploitation of staff with respect to wages and hours, instances of physical abuse reported for all three clothing manufactures, and sexual abuse in the case of Adidas and Nike. And what about other major sponsors? The reportedly questionable ethical backgrounds of Coca-Cola and McDonalds; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of which BP were partly responsible; or even EDF’s fine for spying on Greenpeace. Surely these all require at least a footnote from Alexander?

I have a lot of respect for Alexander taking a stand for what she believed in, but why she thinks Dow are particularly worthy of exclusion from their roles as sponsors of the Olympic games I do not understand. Maybe she believes – though I would argue against – that Dow’s behaviour is the most abhorrent of all the sponsors. Is it that chemical companies are still perceived as particularly evil, and therefore a valid (easy) target? Or, maybe it is simply that people do not perceive themselves as ‘users’ of chemicals, and therefore they do not feel they are faced with the same moral conflict they would be when criticising a brand that is in their fridge at home, on their feet, or fueling their car to the nearest drive through. I think it is easy to criticise when you do not consider yourself part of the problem, but rest assured, as a modern consumer I can just about guarantee we all own a little bit something produced by Dow.

Why I resigned over Bhopal – Meredith Alexander

Bhopal Information Center

Dow Corporate Responsibility – Bhopal

25th Anniversary of Bhopal – Photo Gallery 

London 2012: Dow Chemical deal is fine by me, says David Cameron

The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review Free access

Francis Maude: Show me your evidence – Tanker strikes will put lives at risk

Today Francis Maude has, without any evidence to support his statement, made a frankly unnecessary and inflammatory claim, that a tanker strike will put lives at risk. Just whose lives will be put at risk? How many? Why?

I presume – though he clarified his statement only a little – that he is primarily suggesting emergency services may not have the fuel required, and that care workers, nurses, doctors, and the like, will be unable to get to their respective places of work. This may even sound reasonable, and whilst yes, there may be some risk involved, is this any different to a foot of snowfall overnight? Actually, yes it is. We can can prepare for a tanker strike with a (required) weeks notice much more easily. This is plenty of time to ensure essential services (emergency services) have stockpiled what is required, military personnel can be prepared to limit the impact of the strike (a very positive step by the government), and people doing critical jobs, will have plenty of time to prepare.

I have to be honest, I have not seen the death rates for the periods in 2000 and 2005 when previous fuel protests were occurring, so I can not compare these to equivalent periods (excluding times with other significant factors affecting death rates) when access to fuel was not restricted, but has Maude? Has he observed an increase in death rates that can be attributed to the fuel protests/tanker strikes for these periods? If not, his claims are spurious, and risk not only provoking the panic buying the government is trying to avoid*, but inflaming the obviously highly strained relations between Unite and the government, increasing the probability of a strike in the first place.

Francis Maude: Show me your evidence, or shut your mouth.

*Maude also suggests storing a little extra in a jerry can, and topping your car up with a bit more than usual.

Francis Maude: ‘Lives at risk’ if fuel strike goes ahead.

Francis Maude Wikipedia

Obsession with a Conceptual Leap

The mark of genius is regarded by many as the ability to take a conceptual leap – meaning to take the information (evidence) you have and rationally draw conclusions or propose theories that are detached from existing thought. Newton’s universal law of gravitation (apparently due to that pesky apple?) was a huge conceptual leap, and Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the way we thought in physics and astronomy forever. My favourite though has to be good old Nicolaus Copernicus, who was smart enough and brave enough to suggest that maybe the Earth was not the center of the universe, and we did in fact orbit the sun. Opposing both the scientific and religious doctrine of his time this is arguably the greatest conceptual leap of them all.

Conceptual leaps are important to the advancement of science, and as I said are often used as a barometer for ability; but is an obsession for conceptual leaps detrimental to research, undermining the less glamorous, but never the less solid advancements in a given field?

I pose this question as two weeks ago I attended the 45th Sheffield Stereochemistry conference and personally had an informative and interesting day seeing some great chemistry. After the conference though, a reoccurring criticism of a lot of the chemistry was the lack of a conceptual leap, and this really got me thinking.  Does it matter?

Without going into the details, one talk I particularly enjoyed took a well established chemical reaction, and using well established concepts (organocatalysis) made it better. The yields and the selectivity of this reaction (meaning no unwanted side products were produced) were excellent, and the catalyst (which is necessary for the efficiency and efficacy of the reaction) was reusable thousands of times. Both of these aspects are the key to a ‘great’ chemical reaction – one that not only does what it says on the tin, but crucially one that can be used on scale. (Scalability is the crucial factor for the transfer of a chemical reaction from a small research laboratory to an industrial setting where it can be used to produce kilograms or even tons of chemical compounds in an efficient, safe and cost-effective manner.)  This is valuable research.

I believe that in some corners academia breeds a snobbery that implies a conceptual leap is required for great science, which is not the case. In fact, a conceptual leap in its own right can often of little use; let us consider the Sinclair C5 for a moment. This is not a special case either, the same rules apply in academia; papers are published containing conceptual leaps, but the response can still be an overwhelming ‘so what?’.

Conceptual leaps are necessary and are the cornerstone of progression as the application and development of what we already know is finite.  Though, and not just when times are tough and money is tight, it is important to look at what we already have and make the most of it (see Derek Lowe’s article in Chemistry World for application of this pharma). There is a lot of unexplored value in existing research, and the exploration and development of this should not be derided.

Frugal times are putting a huge strain on funding for research.  In the UK, proposals that only research with a viable economic return will be funded by the tax payer are apparent (and incredibly short-sighted), and the reduction in industrial sponsorship, especially for blue sky research is further hindering the phenomenally exciting research that can lead to those great strides forward in science.  This needs to be addressed now, because ten years down the line when the ‘pipeline’ for research that needs development and application is empty, it will be too late.

We should remember though, a great idea is only truly great if it is taken all the way from conception to application. Edison didn’t invent the ‘lightbulb’, but he made it better and importantly ‘scalable’, thus securing his place in history.

This is of course a carefully selected example to fight my corner, but you take my point. Fundamental, blue sky research is crucial and should be lauded, but those who develop what we have are truly critical to the advancement of science, technology and thus society. These people should be celebrated, and most certainly not derided.

So, is an obsession with conceptual leaps detrimental to the less glamorous development of existing research? In reality I don’t think so, but the attitudes of some may be. If your peers do not appreciate your efforts, and your work is not recognised for the value it contains, conceptual leap or not, this could be both demoralising and demotivating, and most certainly does not help science move forward.

I think those who are quick to criticise the absence of a conceptual leap should think twice. After all, what is the point of research if nobody ever does anything with it?