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December 14, 2015

Greenpeace: Retired Penn State professor accepts undisclosed money for pro-coal research

Academic says he works as independent consultant

A retired Pennsylvania State University professor agreed to take money from a faux coal company to produce research that paints the industry in a favorable light -- and said he didn't need to disclose where the money came from -- according to the environmental organization Greenpeace.

The professor, however, says he has done nothing wrong and was clearly working as an independent consultant.

According to Greenpeace, two of their reporters posed as representatives from coal and oil companies and approached retired sociology Professor Frank Clemente of Penn State, as well as a Princeton professor, about writing reports about the positive impact of their businesses in developing countries.

In Clemente's case, Greenpeace said in a blog post earlier in December that their operatives told him they were working with an Indonesian coal company and asked him to produce pro-industry research. Clemente said he could, saying they would be able to use his title as a Penn State professor, but he wouldn't need to disclose where the funds came from. More from Greenpeace:

Professor Frank Clemente, a sociologist from Penn State university, was asked if he could produce a report “to counter damaging research linking coal to premature deaths (in particular the World Health Organization’s figure that 3.7 million people die per year from fossil fuel pollution)”.
He said that this was within his skill set; that he could be quoted using his university job title; and that it would cost around $15,000 for an 8–10 page paper. He also explained that he charged $6,000 for writing a newspaper op-ed.
When asked whether he would need to declare where the money came from, Professor Clemente said: “There is no requirement to declare source funding in the US.”

Greenpeace goes on to cite other instances in which Clemente took money from coal companies to produce work as an "independent scholar," not needing to admit the source.

But Clemente, who retired from teaching in 2010 and remains on the graduate faculty, denies this practice is unethical. He told the Penn State news site Onward State that since he was not receiving checks from the university when the research cited by Greenpeace was written, he was in the clear. Penn State backed him up. More from Onward State:

“I was not on the Penn State payroll during the publication of either of the two documents that were mentioned in the Greenpeace blog. Thus, the University is not responsible for my work in any way … I make my living as an independent consultant and generally charge an hourly rate.”
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers backed up Clemente’s claims about his ties to the university. “Dr. Clemente has long since retired from the university (he is no longer on our payroll) and the university doesn’t have disclosure rules for retirees. When Dr Clemente expresses his views on issues publicly, they are his own and do not reflect the views of the university.”

Onward State notes that to be fair to Clemente, his actual opinion on the science does not change during his email exchange with the Greenpeace operatives.

Yet Greenpeace believes the practice of not disclosing funding for research goes against the ethics of scientific work, painting the practice as one of corruption where companies secretly pay academics to promote their commercial interests.