Academics want UWA to pull plug on Bjorn Lomborg's $4m 'Consensus Centre'

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Senior academics at an Australian university are asking their bosses to pull the plug on a $4 million taxpayer funded research centre fronted by climate science contrarian Bjorn Lomborg, writes Graham Readfearn from DeSmogBlog.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) was given $4 million to establish the Australia Consensus Centre — a new arm of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the U.S.-registered think tank headed by Lomborg.

The cash grant came after more than $400 million was slashed for science funding in the Government’s 2014 budget.

Bjorn Lomborg, a favourite among conservatives and climate science deniers for his contrarian views on climate change, has claimed that while global warming is a problem, it should be placed well down a list of global priorities for aid and development spending.

DeSmogBlog investigations have found that Lomborg’s U.S. arm has received funding from foundations with links to the billionaire Koch brothers and to billionaire “vulture capitalist” and major Republican donor Paul Singer.

UWA announced on April 2 that Lomborg would be given an adjunct Professor role at the university, but did not disclose the $4 million of taxpayer funding.

While Lomborg told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he had worked with UWA to prepare a proposal for the government, it has been reported that the idea came from the office of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who said last year:

“Coal is good for humanity."

UWA has also said it was approached by the government to house Lomborg’s centre, not the other way around.

Academics from UWA and elsewhere have expressed frustration that the $4 million was handed over without any apparent competitive process being carried out.

The university’s Student Guild launched a 'Say NO to Bjørn Lomborg' campaign, saying the decision to offer the money to UWA was 'politically motivated, and it is an insult to the staff and students' at the University.

The Copenhagen Consensus Center claims to do cost-benefit analysis of policies to tackle global problems, and claims that targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions are too expensive and that climate change won’t begin to have negative impacts on the world’s economy until near the end of this century.

Dr Frank Jotzo, a leading climate economist at the Australian National University in Canberra, claimed in The Guardian that the Copenhagen Consensus Center methodology “has no academic credibility” and pointed to fundamental flaws in the way the CCC assessed the impacts of climate change.

On Friday, staff from across the University of Western Australia’s schools and departments packed out a lecture theatre for a special meeting in an attempt to get some answers from university administrators.

Professor Stuart Bunt, of the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, and vice president of the UWA Academic Staff Association, told DeSmogBlog:

"Given the strength of feeling, many wanted to know if it was possible to cancel this. The question was rather ducked by the VC, Professor Paul Johnson. Our university prides itself on having high academic standards and selects staff very carefully. Some very young applicants, for example to our own school, have better publication records than Lomborg."

He said during the meeting, some were concerned how much academic freedom the Australia Consensus Centre might be able to have, given the reliance on government funding. 

“We were not reassured,” said Professor Bunt.

“There’s a fear that people won’t be able to work without fear or favour.”

Bunt, who served 12 years on the university’s main decision-making Senate board, said academics were angry there had been a lack of consultation about the centre and Lomborg's appointment. He said it appeared the decision to appoint Lomborg and to establish the centre had been taken within a small group of university executives.

Bunt said he was also concerned that Lomborg’s work had been heavily criticised in the past. He said there appeared not to have been a risk analysis done on the impact that engaging with Lomborg might have on the university’s reputation.

Dr David Glance, the director of the Centre for Software Practice, told DeSmogBlog that some academics wanted to know if it was too late to cancel the centre entirely:

"The main focus was staff wanting to know if there was an opportunity to reverse the decision. There was a lot of non-committal answers from Paul Johnson, the vice chancellor."

Glance said while the meeting started cordially, “it became less so towards the end” as frustrations began to rise.

He added:

“People came out more depressed than when they went in.”

DeSmogBlog was told by others in the meeting that academics expressed “shame and embarrassment” at the appointment of Lomborg and were

“... frustrated that they couldn’t get answers to their questions.”

In a highly critical letter released on the Conservation Bytes blog of Adelaide academic Corey Bradshaw, Professor Sarah Dunlop, head of the School of Animal Biology at UWA, told university administrators that Lomborg’s academic record did not merit his appointment.

The letter said:

Aside from the concerns expressed by others, the School is facing a difficult reputational challenge in terms of attracting high quality staff and students as well as establishing and maintaining national and international collaborations as a consequence of these events. As an example, an international Research Fellow has just informed us that, if Dr Lomborg’s adjunct appointment is confirmed, they will not bring their Fellowship to UWAbut, rather, transfer it to a more reputable University.

Additionally, existing PhD students in the School are concerned that this appointment will tarnish their accomplishments as graduates from this University. In addition, staff in the School have been inundated by correspondence from collaborators and stakeholders concerned about the University’s decision.

Professor Bunt said he was aware that other schools within UWA were considering drafting similar letters critical of the university’s decision.

UWA Adjunct Professor Raymond Wills, of the School of Earth and Environment, told Fairfax media the appointment of Lomborg

“... tarnishes the reputation of the university.”

Dr Frank Jotzo told The Guardian:

"Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjorn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate."

Jotzo also said he believed the Copenhagen Consensus Centre was guilty of filtering out dissenting voices from its final recommendations.

The CCC has defended its methods, saying that Nobel Laureates and top economists have been engaged in the work.

UWA has said it will look to raise further funds for the Australia Consensus Centre. The CCC has said it would not accept cash from the fossil fuel industry.

This story was originally published by DeSmogBlog on 24 February 2015 under the title 'Academics Want University To Pull Plug On Climate Contrarian Bjorn Lomborg's $4 Million Australia Consensus Center' and has been republished with permission. You can follow Graham Readfearn on Twitter @readfearn.

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