Category Archives: Study in the USA

Climate crusader’s profitable link to Harvard exposed

Climate crusader’s profitable link to Harvard exposed

Paul Basken, The Chronicle of Higher Education ,27 February 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 356

Years of using a Harvard nameplate to flog his insistence that polar bears are doing fine, and that sunspots might explain planetary warming better than the Industrial Revolution does, may finally have caught up with Wei-Hock Soon. Years of using a Harvard nameplate to flog his insistence that polar bears are doing fine, and that sunspots might explain planetary warming better than the Industrial Revolution does, may finally have caught up with Wei-Hock Soon.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

Soon, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, endured a barrage of news reports last week detailing his acceptance of US$1.2 million in support from energy companies and others hostile to government limits on fossil-fuel use.

In response, the Smithsonian Institution announced plans to investigate whether he had properly acknowledged his political alliances.

"We’re very concerned to get to the bottom of this, and make sure we have all the facts," W John Kress, the Smithsonian’s interim under secretary for science, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The investigation threatens serious repercussions for Soon, commonly known as Willie. But it may raise an equally tough question for Harvard University, the Smithsonian, and arrangements for their shared astrophysics observatory: How did the scientist trade on Harvard’s name to gain a leading role in climate politics?

In a series of scientific journal articles over the past decade, Soon has routinely listed himself as representing "the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics".

In turn, various reports describing his activities and beliefs – often published by organisations dedicated to opposing government regulations – have short-handed his identification to "Harvard scientist". Even The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student-run newspaper, has referred to him that way.

The problem, according to Charles R Alcock, a Harvard professor of astronomy who also serves as director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is that the "centre" refers primarily to a shared set of physical facilities. Almost everyone working at those facilities, Alcock said, is either an employee of Harvard or an employee of the Smithsonian, a federally administered collection of museums and research centres.

"From a legal point of view," he said, "there is no such entity as the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics." And Soon is employed only by the Smithsonian, Alcock said. "It’s always been that way. He has never had any Harvard appointment."

But confusion over Soon’s relationship with Harvard, even if it bolstered his profitable political alliances, may not be entirely or even primarily his responsibility.

One example is his email address:

Kress said that such shared identifications reflect the level of scientific partnership felt by Harvard and Smithsonian scientists, whose observatories merged facilities in 1972 (now four locations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and observatory facilities in Arizona and Hawaii).

He also acknowledged that the blurring might bring "more prestige" to his side of the alliance, in which 200 Harvard scientists are vastly outnumbered by about 700 Smithsonian counterparts. Either way, he said, the email domain is among the matters that the Smithsonian may now re-evaluate as a result of the disclosures about Soon.

Corporate benefactors

The institutions seem less open, however, to reconsidering the financial arrangements exposed by Soon’s activities. Last week’s revelations were based on records of internal Smithsonian email discussions provided under an open-records request to Greenpeace, the environmental-advocacy group, which supports restrictions on fossil-fuel use.

The records showed that Soon and the Smithsonian had received money from groups that included the energy conglomerate Southern Company, the Charles G Koch Foundation, and Donors Trust, a fund for anonymous contributions identified by a 2013 Drexel University study as the largest single provider of money to political efforts to fight climate change policy.

Alcock confirmed through a spokesperson that the donors disclosed by Greenpeace had provided Soon and the Smithsonian with a total of US$1.2 million over a period of 10 years. He also confirmed that, under standard observatory procedures, less than half of that amount was passed through to Soon as salary. Most was kept by the Smithsonian to cover facility operating costs.

Most Smithsonian researchers receive their compensation through such "soft money" payments rather than a salary from the institution, Kress said. But unlike Soon, most of those at the observatory draw funding heavily from government sources, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation, which in turn rely on peer-reviewed award processes.

In a typical year, the Smithsonian observatory receives about US$95 million in grant support, said Alcock’s spokesperson, Christine Pulliam. "Only a small fraction of 1 percent of that figure comes from corporate sources," she said.

At the same time, the Smithsonian has no policy requiring its researchers to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest in any scientific journal articles they produce.

Instead, its promised investigation of Soon will focus on whether he violated financial-disclosure requirements of the journals themselves. At least one of them, a Chinese journal called Science Bulletin, has promised its own review of the matter.

Before the issue of financial disclosure arose, the scientific quality of Soon’s published work had long attracted complaints from experts in the field. Gavin A Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has repeatedly accused Soon of vastly overstating the effect that variations in solar output might have on the earth’s warming climate.

Kress even admitted a lack of confidence in his own employee’s work. "Up until now, it has not been an issue of our scientists' not disclosing their sources of funding," he said.

"As far as we can see, up until just recently, that appeared to be the case with Willie Soon. He was publishing science. He may have interpreted his results in various ways, but the actual data and the results reflected his research, which, although I would say is not the highest-quality research, was research carried out in a scientific process."

Soon did not respond to requests for comment.

A Harvard University spokesperson, Jeff A Neal, provided a written statement saying the institution "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 organisations".

Asked if that applied to Soon or the Smithsonian, Neal said he would not discuss specific cases.

The roles played by both Harvard and the Smithsonian in burnishing Soon’s credentials and scientific authority are key to Soon’s saga, said Andrew J Hoffman, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan. Hoffman is making plans to host a conference in May at his Ann Arbor campus on the risks and benefits for academic scientists participating in public-policy debates.

"Why is anyone even listening to him?" Hoffman said of Soon. "Because he’s got ‘Harvard’ after his name. Once you take that away, who is Willie Soon? He’s nobody."

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at

University World News

Changes to Sex Assault Bill

Changes to Sex Assault Bill

February 27, 2015


WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan group of U.S. senators thathas been pushing legislation to curb campus sexual assaults is making some changes to their proposal as they look to advance the measure in the new Congress.

The sponsors of the legislation, who now include five Democrats and five Republicans, on Thursday unveiled a newversion of their bill aimed at holding colleges more accountable for addressing sexual violence.

Those lawmakers said at a press conference that the revised proposal was a response to feedback from victims of sexual assault, advocates for the rights of accused students, law enforcement and college and university administrators.

“We have listened,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who is leading the effort. “Today’s bill is much stronger for it. We have improved it. We have made changesbased on suggestions we have heard.”

McCaskill said the legislation would strengthen the rights of accused students, which critics have said are undermined by the bill.

“We are very focused on making sure there’s also due process,” she said.

A new provision in the bill would require colleges to notify both the victim and accused student within 24 hours of a college’s decision to move ahead with a disciplinary hearing for an allegation of sexual misconduct. The legislation also now describes students accused of sexual assault as “accused students” instead of “assailants.”

Joe Cohn, the legislative policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, called some of those changes "an incremental step in the right direction."

But, he said, the proposal "still doesn't come anywhere close to striking a balance" between the rights of the complainant and the rights of the accused.

Elsewhere in the legislation are tweaks that appear to address some of the concerns colleges and universities have expressed about the bill.

The new draft, for instance, clarifies which law enforcement agencies colleges must sign an agreement to combat sexual assault with, as well as the role of the adviser that colleges would have to assign to a student making a complaint of sexual assault.

The legislation would now require colleges to anonymously survey their students about the prevalence of sexual assault once every two years instead of annually. The results of those surveys at each institution would be published online.

But much of the legislation, including requiring more sexual assault training on campuses, remains unchanged from when it was first announced last summer.

Colleges would still face stiffer financial penalties for mishandling sexual violence cases under the Clery Act and the gender equity law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The bill would allow the Department of Education to impose a fine as high as 1 percent of a college’s operating budget.

However, the proposal now calls for the revenue collected from those enhanced penalties to be used for a new grant program to help colleges to combat sexual assault rather than flowing back to the Department of Education office responsible for enforcement.

Some colleges and universities had argued that allowing revenue from penalties to flow directly back to the Department of Education might create a “bounty mind-set.”

Since the legislation was first unveiled last summer, some universities, like the State University of New York System, have embraced the proposal and adopted procedures that, in some cases, mirror the legislation. Other groups, such as the American Council on Education, said they were concerned that the proposal was too “heavy-handed” toward institutions.

Governors, state legislatures and individual institutions have also proposed and enacted new policies to deal with sexual assault in recent months.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat, said that colleges and universities have been “taking some steps in the right direction” to address sexual assaults.

“There have been some reforms,” he said. “But there is so much work still to be done.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, though, continued to take a harsher tone against how colleges are performing on the issue.

“The reason why schools are failing is that they do not take this crime seriously,” she said, adding that one-third of students found responsible for sexual violence by a college are not expelled from the institution.

The Senators cosponsoring the legislation said Thursday that they were optimistic they would be able to pass a version of the bill in the new Congress.

Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, the leading Republican cosponsor of the bill, said he discussed the bill with Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate education committee and was interested in bringing the bill before that panel.

“This may not be the perfect piece of legislation that he may agree to,” Heller said, adding that “at the end of the day it may look a little different than what we have.”

McCaskill said in an interview that she, too, had spoken with Alexander about advancing the bill, and, in particular, the added requirements on colleges.

“We are open to his suggestions on how we can make it less burdensome,” she said.

In a statement provided by his office, Alexander said that he wanted to “ensure that regulations on colleges are effective for students.” He has made reducing federal requirements on colleges a priority as he works on a rewrite of the Higher Education Act.

“I look forward to working with Senators McCaskill, Heller and others to examine the best steps the federal government and our colleges and universities can take to help create a safe environment for students,” he said.

Too Much Self-Citation?

Too Much Self-Citation?

February 26, 2015


A senior psychology professor has strongly denied any wrongdoing after a blog highlighted what it claimed was his high self-citation rate in papers published in journals he edited.

Johnny Matson, a professor at Louisiana State University and an expert in autism, was the founding editor in chief of the Elsevier journals Research in Developmental Disabilities(RIDD) and Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD).

Earlier this month the journals came to the attention of Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. Bishop learned that she was on the editorial board of RASD, although she said that she had no recollection of agreeing to such a position. According to Matson, Bishop did give her permission to be added to the board.

Bishop then looked into the journals, setting out her resulting claims in a blog posting, including that Matson is an author on more than 10 percent of the papers published in RASDsince the journal was established in 2007. At around that time his citation count also began to shoot up (according to the Scopus database, he has published 117 papers in RASDand 133 in RIDD, founded in 1987).

Bishop also claims that, according to Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, just over half of Matson’s citations are self-citations -- much higher than the rates of other autism experts she looked at.

In a comment on the blog post, Michael Osuch, publishing director for neuroscience and psychology journals at Elsevier, insisted that under Matson’s editorship all papers in both journals were reviewed, and that his own were handled by one of the journals’ associate editors. He added that Matson and all associate editors stepped down at the end of 2014.

Matson told Times Higher Education that he stood down for health reasons, adding that “anytime a new editor comes in they bring their own associate editors.” Responding to Bishop’s claim that some of his associate editors were “relatively junior, with close links to [him],” he said that all his papers had been reviewed by “several” associate editors.

He said that “substantial numbers” of his nearly 800 papers -- all of which had similar levels of self-citation -- were published in journals that he did not edit. This “debunked” any suggestion that he had been given an “easy ride” by RIDDand RASD, he added, noting that others in his field had also published more than 100 papers in a single journal.

A high citation count would have “no particular value” for him given his seniority, he said. Many of his papers built on his previous work, but he also cited other researchers “at high rates.”

“This issue is one, from my perspective, of giving credit,” Matson said. “I am not aware of any standard regarding self-citations [and] I think the numbers cited [by] Bishop... may be inflated.”

He also said, “I have been a professor for over 30 years and have never had my integrity questioned before. You will always have critics, but... the journals are held in very high regard by the vast majority of researchers in the field.”

Scholarships for Sex

Scholarships for Sex
February 20, 2015

The financial aid director at North Idaho College was arrested this month and fired for offering to trade scholarships for sex with a student. However, the student wasn't real.

Joseph Bekken was arrested and jailed on charged of attempted misuse of public funds, attempted procurement of prostitution, burglary, using a computer in a scheme to defraud and bribery.

According to a police report, authorities tracked him down after spotting an ad on Craigslist in the Casual Encounters section that left officers thinking that a faculty member might be inappropriately approaching students at the college, known by its acronym, NIC. The ad indicated a willingness to help a range of students: "Hello. I have a proposition for NIC students. E-mail me and we can discuss." He then specified that he would be open to women, men or couples.

Authorities then contacted the college, which reported that officials there had been told of a similar post last year, which they at the time believed to be from a faculty member. But they were unable to track down the sender. This time, the college created a fake e-mail account in a student's name so that police officers could communicate with the person who had posted the Craigslist ad. In e-mail exchanges, the man later identified as Bekken wrote: "I have some grant money that I can get applied to your account. I just look for some fun in return."

Police officers continued the discussion -- in the name of a fake student named Sheryl Roberts. They also found out that Bekken had asked someone in his office to help find some scholarship funds for him to give to Roberts, and that he managed to do so. (The employee in the office was unaware of why Bekken allegedly wanted the funds for this particular student.)

E-mails continued to be exchanged, with Bekken describing himself as an English instructor. At one point, the person authorities identified as Bekken wrote: "I'm really antsy honestly. I've never done something like this and I hope it doesn't come back to bite me. Anyhow, I hope you are discreet and I will be too. If this works, we can keep it going for future semesters."

Eventually, a meeting was set up, and police officers then questioned Bekken, who turned up at an address expecting to meeting Roberts. The police report says he admitted that he had sent $587 to an account set up for Roberts (the fake student), in the hope of having sex with her, and the transfer of funds was verified. The money was from the college's foundation. Bekken said that he had been trying to do this with past Craigslist ads for several semesters, but that the fake Roberts was the first student who had agreed to a meeting.

Joe Dunlap, president of the college, issued this statement: "The individual charged in this case is no longer an employee of the college and North Idaho College has been cooperating fully with law enforcement from the very beginning of the investigation. I am grateful for the knowledge and training of our staff that resulted in a swift and decisive response to this incident."

Bekken could not be reached for comment, and did not respond to an e-mail message, but the police report indicated that he did not deny involvement. He was insistent, the police report said, on the source of funds being the foundation. "Joseph was adamant there were no federal funds in his propositions," the police report said.

Connected or Disconnected?

Connected or Disconnected?

February 5, 2015


This year’s freshmen traded some of the hours they would normally have spent hanging out with friends or partying during their senior year in high school for time on social media, a survey of those students shows.

Rather than conclude the freshmen entering college today are more introverted than past cohorts, the 2014 Freshman Survey, conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Higher Education Research Institute, suggests the findings raise new questions about how students interact with their peers -- and how they view those interactions themselves.

Read our full coverage on the 2014 Freshman Survey here.

During their senior year of high school, only 18 percent of surveyed students spent more than 16 hours a week with friends, while 38.8 percent said they socialized for fewer than 5 hours. In 1987, those figures were reversed.

The students also arrived at college woefully underprepared to party. Since 1987, the number of students who spent less than one hour a week partying has more than doubled, from 24.3 percent to 61.4 percent, while the share of students who spent six or more hours a week has dropped from 34.5 percent to 8.6 percent. Nearly half of the students, or 41.3 percent, said they didn’t party during their senior year.

At least part of the time not spent partying or hanging out with friends in person went toward social media use, according to the report. The institute first began asking students about social media use in 2007, when fewer than one in every five students, or 18.9 percent, spent more than six hours a week on social networks. Now, 27.2 percent of students say they do.

The cohort also included fewer casual social media users. In 2007, almost one-third of students, or 31.9 percent, said they only logged in to social networks for less than an hour a week, compared to 21.7 percent who said the same this year.

“It's fair to assume that for some significant portion of kids, time spent on social media is replacing time spent hanging out with friends,” said Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent suicide among college students. “Most of us would argue that texting or e-mailing a friend is not the same quality of interaction as being in a club, or on a team, or just hanging out, but it's more complicated than that. They're still connecting, but it's happening through a device.”

While their need for face-to-face socialization has dropped, students value the social activities offered by colleges more today than they did in the 1980s. More surveyed students (42.8 percent) said a college’s reputation for social activities was a more important factor in their decision-making process than a campus visit (42.4 percent), the size of the institution (36.6 percent) or its graduation rate (31.1 percent), for example.

“Even though socializing with friends has declined, students increasingly value institutional social offerings and environments during the college choice process,” the researchers write. “This may indicate that students are increasingly looking to institutions to provide social opportunities given their declining experience with less structured forms of socializing.”

Jake New contributed to this article.