Scientists Urge Museums to Sever Koch Ties

Dozens of scientists say the mega-donor's ties to museums including the Smithsonian call the institutions' reliability into question.

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School children walk through the Smithsonian Natural History Museum June 3, 2014 in Washington, DC. Updated March 25

Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Dozens of scientists have signed an open letter to museums urging them to cut ties with donors and board members who deny climate change, singling out billionaire political donor David Koch, who sits on the boards of the two of the nation's largest natural history museums.

"We are deeply concerned by the links between museums of science and natural history with those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science," says the letter, published Tuesday at "David Koch’s oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States."

David Koch's exhibit at the Smithsonian was criticized for downplaying climate change.
David Koch's exhibit at the Smithsonian was criticized for downplaying climate change.
Photographer: Julie Bykowicz/Bloomberg Politics

Koch, who sits on the boards of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has also helped finance efforts to deny the scientific consensus that human actions cause climate change, according to a 2013 study from Drexel University. Along with his brother, Charles, Koch is a major political donor. They send millions to conservative and libertarian candidates and causes each cycle, usually through a network of non-profits for which they also act as bundlers, and their political network plans to pump nearly $1 billion into the coming presidential election.

"We are concerned that the integrity of these institutions is compromised by association with special interests who obfuscate climate science, fight environmental regulation, oppose clean energy legislation, and seek to ease limits on industrial pollution," the letter reads. It urges museums "to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation."

The letter's signers include James Hansen, the former head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and three authors of the Nobel Prize-winning 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Natural History Museum that published the letter touts itself as a "mobile museum" that "makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature" in a way traditional museum don't. The letter so far has 37 signatures, but has been accompanied by petitions from environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club to oust Koch.

Museum spokesmen told the New York Times that Koch's position as a board member and donor does not give him influence over museum content, although the article also linked to a 2010 New Yorker profile of Koch that suggested the Smithsonian's David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins downplayed rising global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.

Freedom Partners, a hub for the brothers' political network, referred questions to Koch spokesman Ken Spain, who wrote in an e-mail that Koch and his foundation “have pledged or contributed more than $1.2 billion to educational institutions and cultural institutions, cancer research, medical centers, and to assist public policy organizations. Mr. Koch remains committed to supporting these causes.”

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