Yesterday I had an interesting exchange of views with various members of staff at the University of Nottingham over the limits to academia. At what point does someone teeter on the brink between legitimate academic research and political activism?
I am uncomfortable with the idea of marketing as an academic specialism full stop. I seems to me to be hard to justify taxpayers having to cough up their hard earned cash so that academics can try to find ways of selling them things. Are we really happy with the man who sweeps the floor in the widget factory keeping middle-class boffins in this way?
However, there are situations that are worse still. Work aimed at changing other people's views on any particular issue is entirely illegimate. The particular case we discussed was that of Talking Climate, a website best known for its video extravaganza "How to Talk to a Climate Change Denier". Their website gives this information:
Talking Climate is a UK-based partnership between the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University and the ‘Climate change as complex social issue’ research group at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, Nottingham University.
PIRC, is a climate activist group, run by familiar names such as Christian Hunt (of the Carbon Brief), Kirsty Schneeberger of UK Youth Climate Coalition, former Ralph Nader sidekick Charles Medawar, self-declared "climate advocate" Tim Helweg Larsen, and well-known climate academic-cum-activist Adam Corner. COIN is equally well known, and explains its job as trying to change attitudes and behaviour on climate change.
My Twitter conversation took in, among others, Brigitte Nerlich of Nottingham University. She had part-funding the Talking Climate Project out of her research money. She agreed with me that there was a difference between an academic's need to be policy-relevant and the situation in which they used their positions (and presumably public money) to advance particular points of view - a value-judgement.
This being the case seems to me that Prof Nerlich has a problem. She needs to convince us that when she was approached by these two patently activist organisations with a view to obtaining funding, she authorised the expenditure because she felt that together they would produce a website that was not seeking to advance a particular point of view. The chances of anyone being convinced by this are, to say the least, slim. I said I thought her actions represented a misuse of public funds. She protested, saying that she was non-political, a position I challenged, perhaps somewhat mischievously, by asking her to fund me as well. This is not, on the face of it, an unreasonable request, given that this site has become the venue for many important interactions between climate scientists and sceptics.
Unfortunately, that was the last we heard from Prof Nerlich.
I was then challenged by Adam Corner, who as well as being a board member of PIRC is an academic at Cardiff's school of pyschology. He is therefore central to the Talking Climate project. Corner's position was that Talking Climate is a "resource for research on climate change communication" (I urge readers to examine the site themselves to make up their own minds on this question) and that it actively sought engagement with sceptics. Here he cited a comment thread with Geoff Chambers., although I think Geoff visited the site to comment is hard to construe as Marshall et al "actively seeking engagement".
But that's besides the point. Corner's final take was, rather remarkably, that I was only objecting to Nerlich's funding it because I think climate is contentious. Presumably he thinks climate is uncontentious.
What though, did he mean by "climate"? I couldn't get much out of him on this, apart from "you think AGW is contentious". This of course is not true, since I repeatedly say that mankind affects the climate, not least through CO2 emissions. That much is not contentious - at least not for me.
But the global warming debate is, nevertheless contentious. Estimates of climate sensitivity in the IPCC's draft report vary from a "shrug your shoulders and think about something more important level" of 0.7°C to a distinctly alarming 11°C per doubling. So, no matter what Adam Corner says, the global warming debate is contentious - this is the official IPCC take on the subject. That he pretends it is not puts him in a very small minority and cannot obscure the fact that he and his colleagues are using public funds to advance their view of that debate.
And even if the IPCC gave a single estimate of 11°C based on the output of a single climate model? Would that justify taxes being taken from people who disagree? Do Nerlich and Corner even recognise the right of people to have different opinions? If they do, then how can they justify using public funds to pay people like George Marshall to publish his slime?