This column is usually focused on the role of entrepreneurship, innovation and small business in the Australian and global economy. However, I am devoting this article to a discussion over the costs and benefits of the plan to establish the Australian Consensus Centre (ACC) at the University of Western Australia (UWA). This is in the spirit of academic freedom and is a reflection of a senior UWA academic staff member who cares deeply about the reputation of my institution.
Since Lenore Taylor’s article in The Guardian on Friday 17 April of the federal government’s plan to grant $4 million to UWA to establish the ACC, the issue has generated significant national and international media attention. It has also evoked a strong and largely negative reaction from the UWA staff and students. This is principally driven by its association with the controversial climate science sceptic Dr Bjorn Lomborg.
Every day that passes appears to generate a new twist or turn to this story and generally raises more questions than answers. Dr Lomborg visited UWA in March 2015 and gave a lecture at the Business School. However, despite a low-key announcement on 2 April there was little discussion about the ACC with the staff, even within the UWA Business School. The connection with the federal government was also held in confidence until The Guardian report later that month.
Of particular concern is whether the benefits that UWA might accrue from hosting this centre outweigh the costs.
Dr Bjorn Lomborg the academic
The central character is this story is Dr Lomborg a 50 year old Dane who founded the Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC) and who will play a critical role in the UWA ACC. While his background is widely published in other media it is worthwhile summarising the story of Lomborg and the creation of the CCC as it provides an important context for understanding the proposed new centre at UWA.
Lomborg graduated with a Master of Arts in Political Science from the University of Aarhus in 1991, and a PhD in political science from the University of Copenhagen in 1994. His academic career comprises a period as an Assistant Professor (1994-1996) and then Associate Professor (1997-2005) at the University of Aarhus, where he taught statistics within the Political Science Department.
His early academic career saw his research focus on game theory. Between 1991 and 2001 Dr Lomborg published about 20 papers, most of which were outside the peer reviewed journals. They include a book chapter on game theory and the iterated prisoner’s dilemma published in 1994, and a peer-reviewed article in the American Sociological Review published in 1996 titled “Nucleus and Shield: The evolution of social structure in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma”. This latter paper has been attributed with 141 citations since its publication and remains Lomborg’s most highly cited work in the peer reviewed literature.
This track record in the peer reviewed scientific literature is unexceptional. It has led Professor Sarah Dunlop Head of the School of Animal Biology and Head of Experimental and Regenerative Neurosciences at UWA to question how he could be appointed as an Adjunct Professor at the university. In a letter to the Vice Chancellor Professor Dunlop suggested that Lomborg had only 28 publications with 55 citations with one paper (Nucleus and Shield) accounting for 84% of the total. She suggested that his “H-Index” (a measure of the number of citations a paper or author has received over their life time) was a paltry “3”.
Citations metrics are an important measure of an academic researcher’s performance and are used as a factor when considering appointments and promotions. However, the collection and scoring of citation metrics is made complex by the way it is collected and reported. As an article in conservationbytes.com explains, depending on which database is used the citations increase. Further, since 2001 Lomborg has mainly published books, many of which are best sellers and these are generally very heavily cited.
However, these books remain outside the realm of the double-blind peer-reviewed literature, which remains the gold standard for academic currency. So Dr Lomborg who at best might have an H-index of “4” is not a research academic from the perspective of conventional science. Instead he is a prolific author in the mainstream media with a very large number of articles published in leading newspapers including The Economist, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Guardian and Scientific American.
Dr Lomborg the sceptical environmentalist
In the late 1990s Lomborg shifted his focus away from game theory and onto politics and then the environment. He published another book chapter in 1997 titled “Simulating multiparty systems”. However, it was his foray into environmental issues where he made his mark. According to a review of Lomborg’s work by Jeron van den Bergh, published in the Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences in 2010, the shift to environmental policy commenced in February 1997.
At that time Lomborg was in Los Angeles where he allegedly read a magazine interview with American economist Julian Simon. It was Simon’s claim that his own analysis of the publicly available statistics found that the “doomsday” claims of climate science were incorrect. This captured Lomborg’s interest and he sought to use his knowledge of statistics to replicate Simon’s work.
He reportedly set up a study group with his students and claims to have found that Simon was correct. In 1998 he published a series of articles in the Danish newspaper Politiken outlining his findings, which triggered a major debate across all forms of media. By 1998 he had published a book in Danish Verdens Sande Tilstand (The True State of the World), summarising his claims. It was positioned as a counter to the World Watch Institute’s annual report on “The State of the World”.
In response the Danish Ecological Council (an independent advisory committee on environmental matters) organised a counter publication to Lomborg’s work. They commissioned experts with no association to environmental organisations and the work Fremtidens Pris (The Price of the Future) was published in 1999. This book drew together 18 authors from a range of academic disciplines. They were critical of Lomborg’s work across areas such as biology, environmental science and social science.
This battle with the scientific establishment led to Lomborg publishing his best-selling book The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001. This was essentially an English version of Verdens Sande Tilstand with a series of amendments including an expanded chapter dealing with global warming.
He has subsequently published several other books such as Global crises, global solutions (2004) and Cool It: the skeptical environmentalists’ guide to global warming (2007). These publications have given Lomborg the international profile that he now has and propelled him from a relatively obscure Danish academic in game theory, to a global celebrity.
Is Lomborg a scientist or a polemicist?
Dr Lomborg is often described as an environmental scientist or an economist, and has received a range of awards and accolades from media organisations such as Foreign Policy, The Guardian and Businessweek, as well as the World Economic Forum. However, his work on climate science has generated fierce opposition from the majority of the scientific community, as well as support from many in economics, the social sciences, and business.
Although he does not deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change, Lomborg plays down its likely impacts on the planet. His book The Skeptical Environmentalist invoked attempts to stop its publication by Cambridge University Press, and then at least three formal complaints to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) in 2002. A detailed account of this matter is outlined in van den Bergh’s article.
The DCSD conducted a detailed investigation and gave Lomborg the right of reply to many scientists who accused his book of scientific dishonesty. The committee concluded that the book was “deemed clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice”, however, they did not find him guilty of committing scientific dishonesty because they did not consider him to be a scientist. As van den Bergh explains:
“The DCSD decided that The Skeptical Environmentalist was ‘deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty’, because the book was based on a systematically biased choice of data. However, the DCSD did not feel able to judge that Lomborg had misled his readers deliberately or with gross negligence, because of his lack of scientific expertise on the themes treated in the book.”
So the conclusion drawn by the DCSD was not that Lomborg’s book was credible science or in fact “scientifically honest”, but simply that Lomborg was not a scientist and knew too little about science to be able to know that he was being dishonest.
For most academics this would have been a crushing blow, but Lomborg actually prospered from the exercise. He was supported by a counter-reaction from a large number of Danish social scientists who challenged the DCSD’s ruling. Lomborg filed a complaint to the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (DMSTI) against the DCSD (over which it was responsible). The Ministry deferred the matter back to the DCSD, which rendered the case against Lomborg invalid.
According to van den Berg the DCSD decision to invalidate its previous ruling was based on the argument that it had not found Lomborg acted with “intent or gross negligence”, and therefore found no reason to reopen the case. However, while it offered Lomborg a way to vindicate himself, it also ignored the DCSD’s earlier claim that Lomborg was lacking in any scientific expertise.
The reactions from the scientific community to Lomborg’s books have remained strong and largely negative. For example, in 2002 the Scientific American published an editorial in which a number of leading scientists were asked to comment on what Lomborg had said about their fields. They encompassed climate science, energy, population growth and biodiversity. A common conclusion was that Lomborg had selectively “cherry picked” the data to support his arguments.
A review of The Skeptical Environmentalist by Andrew Aulisi was published in the Quarterly Review of Biology in 2003. Whilst this is a relatively objective analysis of the book in which Aulisi finds a number of positives, he raises concerns. These include: “…the emergence of a pattern of careless and selective use of statistics”, and the attacks that Lomborg makes on the established scientific community in relation to global warming and the risk of extinction of many species. According to Aulisi:
“The Skeptical Environmentalist slants its coverage of climate science disproportionately in favour of skeptics, incorrectly assesses the design of climate models, overlooks key factors in estimates of greenhouse gas effects, uncritically accepts speculative theories on warming, and is generally deeply flawed and biased”.
Many other scientists have responded to Lomborg’s work pointing out the flaws in his methodology and selective use of data. For example, van den Bergh summarises a long list of criticisms covering methodological bias, conceptual and theoretical weaknesses, selective use of data, errors of fact, inappropriate data analysis and use of statistics and referencing. Many simply accuse his work of being “polemic” rather than “scientific”.
In 2005 Luis Bini and four colleagues published a paper in the journal Conservation Biology in which they critically examined Lomborg’s claims that climate change was not having as negative an impact on biodiversity as many scientists believe. They undertook a major review of the scientific literature and drew the conclusion that Lomborg was wrong in his optimistic outlook.
His work was also vigorously criticised by writer Howard Friel in the book “The Lomborg Deception”. Friel argued that many of Lomborg’s supporting citations used in his books were actually saying the opposite of what was being claimed. This matter was reviewed by Sharon Begley in a Newsweek article from 2010 which provides a critical analysis of Friel’s work and the response from Lomborg.
I provide this background on Lomborg’s academic work because this controversy surrounding his claims against climate science lies at the heart of the political brouhaha surrounding the UWA ACC. It is also a major reason why Dr Lomborg has been able to build such a high international profile.
As many reviewers of his work suggest, Lomborg is more a polemicist than a scientist. It is an important distinction and while there is no problem in someone being a polemicist they should not be confused with scientists or serious academic researchers.
Climate science politics and the rise of the “Consensus Centre”
Undoubtedly the controversy surrounding Lomborg’s scepticism helped his career. Science and politics are uncomfortable bedfellows. The debate surrounding climate change and the appropriate policy responses to its challenge have polarised the community and become a major platform for political ideology. Lomborg has successfully positioned himself into this arena as a concerned environmentalist who refuses to be panicked by the doomsday scenarios predicted by the majority of scientists. Instead he offers an apparently objective view in which economics not science is the key to addressing global problems.
This is an appealing argument for those who wish to deny climate change or at least downplay its possible impacts. It has been a major reason why Lomborg has been able to build his profile and establish the “Consensus Centre”. Once more a bit of historical perspective is required.
In 2002 Lomborg was appointed by the newly elected conservative government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen to head up Denmark’s new Environmental Assessment Institute (EAI). This appointment was made on the basis of Lomborg’s high profile as a climate science sceptic following the publication The Skeptical Environmentalist the year before. Although appointed to the EAI for 5 years he resigned as Director in 2004 remaining on as a part-time consultant. His time as Director of the EAI was allegedly not without its controversy and some of the research produced from the institute was reportedly criticised due to flaws in methodology and recommendations.
However, Lomborg used this time to devise his “consensus” project designed to draw together some of the world’s leading economists to discuss and rank in priority order “the 10 greatest problems facing humanity today”. This was to be called “The Copenhagen Consensus” and was the beginning of Lomborg’s transition into the CCC.
Despite concerns over the project voiced by the board of the EAI, apparently leading to the resignation of five out of seven Directors, “The Copenhagen Consensus” conference was held in May 2004 over five days with funding from the Danish Government and The Economist newspaper. A report on the results of this first “consensus” reveals that it assembled “eight of the world’s most distinguished economists” who examined ten global challenges and 30 proposals commissioned in advance from selected experts. The task for the distinguished panel of economists was to assume they had $50 billion of government money to allocate and to undertake a cost-benefit analysis ranking each project in order of priority for funding.
The outcome of the first “consensus” created a negative reaction from many within the environment movement because it placed the control of HIV/AIDS, the provision of micro nutrients, trade liberalisation and control of malaria in the top four places. By contrast action on climate change via carbon taxes and the Kyoto Protocol were considered “bad” and ranked at the bottom.
In 2006 Lomborg established the CCC and with Danish government support staged two more conferences. The second “consensus” conference was held in May 2008. It focused on how to spend $75 billion to advance global welfare. The third “consensus” conference was held in May 2012 and followed a similar pattern to the first two. In each case 30 project proposals were commissioned in response to 10 major issues. They were reviewed and given to a panel of distinguished economists who had around three days to assess and rank the projects as they allocated the nominal money. As with the first “consensus” the second and third saw spending on vitamin and zinc supplements to children, infectious disease control, or global trade as being of more importance than climate change mitigation.
In 2011 the centre-left government of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took power in Denmark and the following year funding for the CCC was withdrawn. Faced with this loss of government funding Lomborg moved to the United States where he had registered the CCC as a not-for-profit organisation in 2008.
The birth of the UWA ACC
Now Lomborg has apparently found a new home for the CCC in Australia. The generous provision of $4 million to get the new centre established at UWA appears to have been driven by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott. According to the Sydney Morning Herald the Prime Minister, who praised Lomborg’s work on climate science in his 2009 book Battlelines, commenced plans to fund the CCC in the middle of 2014. It has been reported that the Australian Catholic University (ACU) was initially approached with a view to putting it into their Canberra campus. However, UWA was finally selected from “a range of other locations”.
This suggests that UWA was not the first choice for the ACC, nor was it the only institution that might have been approached. The official line from UWA has been that it was approached by the Abbott government to house the centre, which was a contradiction to the press release from the federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne.
The establishment of the ACC within UWA remains shrouded in a cloak of confidentiality. It seems that the process of negotiations between the university and the federal government took place over several months going back to late 2014. On 2 April 2015 the university announced the establishment of the ACC in their University News stating that the centre would focus on three major projects over four years. However, it made no mention of the federal government’s funding.
The first project the ACC will look at is UN post-2015 agenda (something already started by the CCC in their “Post 2015 consensus”). The third will aim to set global priorities for development aid and help guide the way that Australia distributes its foreign aid budget. This is also something Lomborg has a head start on, having been appointed to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as an advisor on “aid innovation”.
However, the second project titled “the Australian Prosperity Consensus” will, according to the UWA website:
“…focus on determining which policies will help keep Australia prosperous in a generation’s time. It will generate economic evidence on efficiency across a wide range of Australia’s greatest challenges, including infrastructure, education, health, environment, governance, innovation and immigration. Its results will support a more informed national debate on Australia’s priorities.”
This is perhaps the most contentious for Australian domestic politics as the project will potentially place the ACC into the centre of party political debates of the future of government spending. It will also do so during the run up to the next federal election.
Given the row that has erupted over the Intergenerational Report and the role played by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, UWA will need to be mindful of the risk associated with seeking to mix science with politics.
What are the financial costs and benefits to UWA of the ACC?
In relation to the financial costs and benefits it is known that the federal government has granted UWA $4 million over four years to help set up the ACC. While this seems like a large sum it is unlikely to be sufficient to do the job. UWA secured the money against a funding proposal prepared by the UWA Business School and a contract has now been signed. What this contract requires from UWA has not been publicly disclosed but the university has declared that it is not providing any cash support for the ACC or its projects, and that a target of the cash or in-kind support of around $13 million has been set. However it also states:
“UWA is not providing cash support for the ACC or its projects. The ACC will always operate within its means and will only undertake additional work beyond the Australia Consensus programme funded by the Australian Government if external funding is forthcoming.”
The centre will be located within the UWA Business School and co-located within the existing Centre for Social Impact (CSI), the Business School’s only research centre. The university has announced that the ACC will be staffed by a Centre Director, a Research Project Manager and “media, communications and events personnel”. This staffing formula reflects the nature of the ACC as an entity largely focused on the staging of “consensus” conference events rather than research for academic purposes.
It is unclear how much the salary bill for these ACC staff will be, or whether they will be redeployed from within UWA or new hires. Given my own experience of running centres at UWA and Curtin University, it is likely that the overhead cost for the ACC would be somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 per year accounting for salaries, on-costs, office equipment, travel and associated operating costs.
UWA generally applies a 35% infrastructure charge to any grants received and so it is reasonable to assume that this will apply to the $4 million provided by the government. This would see $1.4 million shaved off by the university for “infrastructure” leaving the ACC with $2.6 million over four years. This would provide around $350,000 per year to run itself, which seems sufficient to break even, but insufficient to do the work that is expected of it.
In a review of the CCC’s work published in June 2013 on the website of the UK charities organisation Giving What We Can it was disclosed that the “consensus” process would cost an estimated $2 million:
“This research is expected to cost around $0.8m, and is already largely funded .The associated promotional activities will cost up to a further $1.2m, and will ensure this research is read and taken seriously by the people who most need to hear about it.”
This suggests that a “consensus” project of the type planned for the ACC will potentially need around $2 million with most of it going to publicity. The current plan for the ACC is that it will host the next “consensus” conference in Perth in 2016. This fits with the pattern of “consensus” events that Lomborg holds every four years. However, these are typically held in May so that would give the ACC only about 12 months to organise a global conference and raise the necessary money to host it.
There is also the question of what – if any – financial return the ACC will need to provide to Dr Lomborg. The appointment of Lomborg as an Adjunct Professor to UWA carries no salary and the university has made it clear that he will not be appointed as a member of staff. However, Lomborg is understood to draw large consulting fees from the CCC.
According to Graham Readfearn, the financial arrangements for Lomborg’s CCC in the United States include payments to Lomborg of around US $975,454 over the period 2012-2013. This money was out of a total fund raising pool of about US $4.3 million that the not-for-profit centre raised over the period 2008 to 2012 with about half that money being received in the final year.
When asked by The Guardian on Friday 24 April if it was necessary to have Dr Lomborg involved with the ACC, Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson said that the deal was, “predicated on having a working relationship with the Copenhagen Consensus Centre but he is president of that centre, so I would say yes”. This suggests that the intellectual property rights associated with the CCC’s “consensus” methodology vests with Lomborg. It is worth asking how much the ACC will need to pay the CCC and Lomborg for the rights to use it.
So there are questions over the financial cost-benefit of the ACC to UWA. Even if UWA is not obliged to put in any of its own money, the ACC will still need to raise more than the $4 million offered by the government if it is to do its work. How much the full operating costs will be, how money will be allocated and the sources of any donations remain unclear. Critics will certainly pay close attention to funds sourced to donors with alleged political or commercial interests. Particularly to those who have publicly expressed opposition or scepticism to climate science.
What are the reputational costs and benefits to UWA of the ACC?
Aside from the financial risk there is the more complex but potentially more important issue of reputation. In 2012 UWA prided itself on securing a foothold in the bottom of the Top 100 leading world universities. In 2014 UWA was ranked 88th in the world according to the Shanghi Jao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). These international ranking systems are measured across a wide range of indicators, but one of the key measures are citations in peer-reviewed journals.
The argument advanced by UWA in support of the establishment of the ACC is that the centre will attract the Nobel Laureates who form the expert review panel that attends the “consensus” conference for about five days. It also highlights the commissioning of at least 30 research papers that will be selected for these experts to assess and rank. They point to the methodology of the “consensus” process and suggest that the research will be “published and made available in the public domain”.
However, the ACC is not a research centre as the term is normally understood by universities. Based on the available information relating to the operation of the CCC it is essentially an event management organisation for Lomborg’s “consensus” process. The media has already started to call it a “think tank” and both government and UWA media statements have made it clear that the centre will be providing policy advice.
Professor John Quiggin, who is an Economist and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, has raised concerns over the methodology used by the “consensus” process. He accepts that the authors of the research papers commissioned for the project and the expert panellists approached their work “in a serious and fair minded way”. However, he is critical of the selection of the projects, the choice of reviewers and the inherent difficulties of trading off something as complex as climate change against the need to fight the spread of AIDS.
“The real problems, though, were not with the choice of panel members but with the assessment procedure, which was clearly designed to fit Lomborg’s original example of a choice between spending on climate change and on clean drinking water.”
“The approach adopted was to assume a budget of $50 billion, and then seek to allocate it to those projects which would yield the largest benefit for a given cost. As Jeffrey Sachs points out, this approach is fine for evaluating discrete, project-based interventions, such as improvements in drinking water quality. But with a small budget and an insistence on easily quantified costs and benefits, it is naturally biased against bolder initiatives such as broad-based improvements in health and education.”
Quiggin accused the “consensus” process of being a “political stunt”, “designed in every detail, to produce a predetermined outcome”. While this may not be accepted by all it seems difficult for the ACC to avoid the suggestion that it is a political “think tank” funded by the government to assist it with policy development as it enters the final year of its current three-year term.
Will the ACC produce a research dividend that will help UWA enhance its global ranking? To do so it would need to generate peer-reviewed journal papers able to secure high citations. It is my understanding that the centre is not expected to generate such research in a direct way. Any peer reviewing is undertaken by commissioned researchers engaged in the “consensus” process and publication is not via journals but via books and the media. At that is how the CCC appears to be operating.
There is already a call from some UWA academics and the Student Guild to not proceed with the ACC on the basis that it will “tarnish their reputations” as a place for serious research. However, other voices are calling for tolerance and the avoidance of trying to shut down debate and discussion within the university. Those who oppose Lomborg over his controversial stance on climate science will oppose the ACC. One example is Brendan May, writing in eco-business.com who suggested that:
“UWA now risks becoming an irrelevant press office touting fake academic credentials to support Abbott’s reckless and mad climate stance”.
However, others such as UWA Winthrop Professor David Pannell, Director of the Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy (CEEP) welcome the ACC. In his personal blog pannelldiscussions he suggests that much of the criticism of Lomborg’s work is unconvincing and even causes him to “laugh out loud”. He expresses his relief that UWA has not been “scared off” by the controversy.
So is it really worth the effort?
Prior to the announcement of this centre in The Guardian article of 17 April I had little knowledge of Dr Lomborg or his “consensus” process. My journey of discovery over the past week has left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I am frustrated that there was not more consultation with university staff and students, and concerned that so much information has had to come from the media rather than the university.
Those with whom I have spoken, including some who were more closely associated with the ACC in its planning, have suggested that it will boost the financial resources of the UWA Business School, and enhance its research activity. However, I remain yet to be convinced of these outcomes.
There is no doubt that Dr Lomborg has built a successful career with his “contrarian” views on climate science. His “consensus” process is also a business model that has given him the opportunity to win support from some of the world’s most rich and powerful.
In my view Dr Lomborg is neither a scientist nor an economist. He is more an entrepreneur who has used the talents of a gifted polemicist to secure resources and garner attention. His “consensus” process is not without merit and seems like a useful model for securing government and media attention. It may also generate some potentially useful policy outcomes.
The defenders of the ACC initiative argue that it is appropriate for a university to remain open to contrarian views and embrace robust debate rather than trying to shut it down. I agree with this and note that academic discourse is too often lacking in arguments and counter arguments these days. Further, if UWA wishes to established what appears to be a political “think tank” and events organiser rather than a conventional research centre that is entirely up to it.
However, in doing so the university should ensure that it has consulted with its Senate, staff, students and alumni and secured their consensus for such an initiative. It should also undertake a rigorous cost-benefit analysis considering both financial and reputational risks. Based on the available evidence this does not appear to have occurred in relation to the ACC. The “consensus” centre currently lacks consensus support from these key stakeholders and that is the problem.
Tim Mazzarol receives funding from the Australian Research Council
Authors: The Conversation