Heartland revisited: How to avoid accusations of influence

The Heartland controversy rolls on. If you’ve missed it, this is the leak of documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian think tank. The documents, which include the names of previously anonymous donors and funders, were first published on the DeSmogBlog and ThinkProgress Green websites. Heartland says at least one of the documents is a forgery, but the story has reignited the debate over climate science and the funding of groups on either side of the ‘debate.’

The most recent twist in the story has been the revelation of how the documents were released. Environmental scientist Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security based in Oakland, California, used an assumed name to obtain the documents. He’s been criticised for a lack of scientific integrity and unethical conduct. Gleick’s defenders say that his actions were taken in the name of a greater good (exposing who funds activities they believe misrepresent climate science), and that scientists have a right (even a duty) to engage with political issues. They also say that Gleick was acting as any good journalist would (although perhaps that’s not the best line of defence, with the Leveson inquiry into journalistic ethics going on in the UK at the moment).

Gleick himself has said that he acknowledges “…a serious lapse of [his] own and professional judgment and ethics.” Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute is trying to get some heat under its ‘Fakegate‘ presentation of the affair, depicting it as a concerted attempt by its opponents to discredit alternative positions on climate change.

I’ve suggested here before that if think tanks want to be public institutions in the sense of influencing public debate as well as public policy (and if they want to retain their publicly funded tax breaks), then they should consider how they could operate much more transparently. However, the Heartland Institute has made some points that are worth considering further in relation to transparency (the text below is taken from a Q&A section of Heartland’s website):

“Q: Why doesn’t Heartland reveal the identities of its donors?

A: For many years, we provided a complete list of Heartland’s corporate and foundation donors on this Web site and challenged other think tanks and advocacy groups to do the same. To our knowledge, not a single group followed our lead.
After much deliberation and with some regret, we now keep confidential the identities of all our donors for the following reasons:
  • People who disagree with our views have taken to selectively disclosing names of donors who they think are unpopular in order to avoid addressing the merits of our positions. Listing our donors makes this unfair and misleading tactic possible. By not disclosing our donors, we keep the focus on the issue.
  • We have procedures in place that protect our writers and editors from undue influence by donors. This makes the identities of our donors irrelevant.
  • We frequently take positions at odds with those of the individuals and companies who fund us, so it is unfair to them as well as to us to mention their funding when expressing our point of view.
  • No corporate donor gives more than 5 percent of our budget, and most give far less than that. We have a diverse funding base that is too large to accurately summarize each time we issue a statement.

If you do not approve of this policy, your argument is not with us but with those who would abuse a sincere effort at transparency. We urge anyone who sees the need for objective research and commentary on public policy issues to join us as a Member or donor.”

Interesting points – but surely wrong. Not disclosing donors has obviously failed to keep the focus on the issue, far from it. The identity of donors is then not irrelevant; even if it is to staff at Heartland on a day-to-day level, it isn’t to those who read Heartland’s materials and need to trust their integrity without further research. Being open about donors would help to support its claims of integrity (for example, by allowing us to see where the Institute had taken positions at odds with funders’ views). And the final statement has an interesting implication: if you want the work of the Institute to be objective, then you’ll have to pay for it, otherwise shut up (of course, this is not what the Institute meant to suggest).

It’s true that most think tanks can be made to sound sinister. It’s easy for critics to list donors and insinuate about their influence, or even better, to speculate on ‘shadowy funders’ in the absence of public information. This is exacerbated by the fact that not many people really know what think tanks do anyway, despite their ambitions to inform public debate.

Even where funding information is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘policy wash‘ has been going on; particular funders will understandably want to support organisations that see the world in the same way they do. And no-one when they’re young dreams of wanting to grow up to be a shill.

But we wouldn’t be discussing this at all if think tanks were 100 per cent open, not just about who funds them but perhaps even more importantly how they go about their work. Both require much greater transparency. The way out of the dilemma posed by the Heartland Institute’s response is not to tweak donor policy or document security; it’s to rethink the think tank in its entirety – starting with who pays for them and who participates in them.