A Partial Mea Culpa on Shukla and GMU

by James A. Bacon

I fess up. I raised questions and made insinuations unwarranted by the facts in a recent post, “Did Shukla Fudge His Conflict-of-Interest Waiver Form?” When I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, so here goes….

The article addressed a conflict-of-interest waiver form submitted by George Mason University climatology professor Jagadish Shukla regarding his affiliation with the Institute for Global Environment and Society (IGES), which paid him $343,000 in 2012 over and above his university salary. I wrote:

Shukla’s waiver request form stated that he received annual salary “in excess of $10,000 from IGES.” The waiver-request form did not state that he earned $343,025 in 2013 compensation, nor that IGES paid his wife $141,000 as business manager, nor that the institute paid GMU colleague James Kinter $207,0000 as director, all as reported in IGES’ 990 form. Ten thousand dollars is in the range of part-time employment that would not conflict with Shukla’s university obligations; three-hundred and forty-three thousand dollars, which exceeded his university salary, is not.

So, the question arises whether Shukla submitted deceptively incomplete information by characterizing his compensation from IGES as “in excess of $10,000,” or whether he remedied that deficiency by conveying it verbally or in some other manner. …

Accordingly, I would conjecture, subject to verification, that the committee based its conflict-of-interest decision solely upon the information that Shukla provided in his waiver request form, in which he described his IGES compensation only as “in excess of $10,000.” …

One possible conclusion to draw from this evidence is that Shukla deliberately obscured his IGES compensation in the conflict-of-interest waiver request form. Another possible conclusion is that committee members knew of the hefty compensation but chose — wink, wink, nod, nod — not to make it an issue. Perhaps readers could offer other possible explanations.

A reader using the name “Travis Bickle” pointed out the existence of a GMU “Outside Employment” policy document of which I had been unaware when I wrote the article. That document states that GMU employees “may engage in certain employment outside the university, provided that the employee has obtained prior written approval of his or her supervisor and the employee complies with all relevant University policies, including policies regarding conflicts of interest…”

Employees must report salary and benefits “that may reasonably be anticipated to exceed $10,000 annually.” They also must submit “regular and routine reports (monthly or quarterly) from such firm or entity identifying the number of hours and total payment made to the University employee.”

Based on these reporting requirements, there is no reason to believe that GMU’s conflict-of-interest committee was uninformed of Shukla’s significant additional compensation.

Had I done a more thorough job of reporting, I would not have asked if Shukla had fully complied with reporting requirements, nor if university officials were aware of his full outside income. Nor would I have raised the possibility that Shukla had fudged his conflict-of-interest compensation, or that university officials had looked the other way. Knowing what I know now, those were unfair questions to pose and insinuations to make based on the information available to me. I apologize for making them.

I apologize to readers as well. I have committed a number of gaffes over the years, and when I am made aware of them, I perform a public mea culpa. Doing serious journalism on a blog is like flying without a net. I have no editor to read behind me, spot inaccuracies or question the thoroughness of my reporting. I count on readers to fill that role, as Mr. “Bickle” has done. When I fall short of my standards, I do my best to set the record straight.

That said, there are still serious issues regarding Shukla’s immense compensation. In light of this new information I would reframe the issue this way: If GMU’s conflict-of-interest committee was fully informed that Shukla’s income from IGES consumed 33 hours weekly and more than doubled his university salary, why did the committee allow it? How is it possible that working 33 hours on IGES business, as closely related with Shukla’s university job as director of the Climate Dynamics Program as it may have been, did not interfere with his teaching, administrative and other university duties?

Alternatively, if Shukla’s IGES duties were so closely aligned with his GMU duties that they posed no conflict, was he essentially collecting two salaries for doing the same job? If so, why would GMU have permitted it?

Then there is the bigger question to consider: Is Shukla an outlier in working the system, or is this a case where “everybody does it”? There are dozens of “institutes” and “centers” in Virginia universities, and hundreds of faculty members and researchers affiliated with them. Most if not all of these groups rely upon outside funding, whether from the federal government or from private sources. Is double dipping widespread? And, if so, are the safeguards in place — Virginia laws and university policies, federal R&D contracts, governance systems for 501(c)3 non-profit entities — adequate to prevent abuse?

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13 responses to “A Partial Mea Culpa on Shukla and GMU

  1. Sir, I am terribly and sincerely sorry my attack dog bit you on your left rump.

    Now, can you kindly present the other one for him to deal with….

    jeezy peezy

  2. Jim, flippant responses notwithstanding, the question of “double dipping” in connection with academic research grants is substantially troubling. There are, of course, many academics and other professionals who serve from time to time as the chair of this or that association/society/council/you-name-it devoted to the promotion and betterment of their specialty; these are people who truly perform a service to their peers, often on a volunteer basis, often rotating through the leadership responsibilities while a paid staffer or two holds the paperwork together and provides continuity. Sometimes it is necessary to reimburse the expenses of these volunteers; one can even make a case for a modest stipend to replace lost income during the time of service. But you are describing something qualitatively different. You are describing a professional who has NOT curtailed his regular, full-time employment, yet is devoting the equivalent of full-time hours to a second job on a continuing (multi-year) basis, and is being paid (with substantial perks) for both; indeed, he has the executive title of “president” of the second organization.

    Like you, I am dismayed that this was approved by the conflicts review board(s) undoubtedly put in place to prevent abuses such as this appears to be. The fact that “everybody else does it” is no justification, even when playing the academic-title shell game. Thank you for bringing this to light, and I hope you receive more of an explanation than what you have uncovered so far.

  3. If you guys would like to separate the politics from this -you may have a significant issue of 21st century “work” which would be:

    1. – do you get paid for hours devoted on behalf of an employer

    or .

    2. are you paid to deliver a product and if you can deliver that product in less hours , i.e. you figure out how to be more productive and thus you are rewarded with time to do other work …

    if you can deliver a work product in 20 hours a week that fulfills what your employer needed to have accomplished – who is entitled to the other 20 hours – you – or the employer?

    NOW – when you CONFLATE that issue with what the worker spends his time on on the “other” work and your “concern” is his politics – you’ve crossed over the Rubicon in my book.

    so what exactly is the goal of this “inquiry” ?

  4. Anyone can make mistakes but the problem with this series of stories is that it smacks of a Michael Mann style witchhunt against scientists who
    (like a dominant majority globally) believe that climate change is real and that mankind is a factor.

    I personally am getting tired of the skeptics making the same old tired arguments.

    And, in most other cases, Jim would be cheering on an individual’s ability and capacity for making money.

    • “This series of stories … smacks of a Michael Mann style witchhunt against scientists who (like a dominant majority globally) believe that climate change is real and that mankind is a factor.”

      Step 1: Ignore the substance of the questions raised about Shukla.
      Step 2: Label the entire effort a partisan witch hunt
      Step 3: Pretend like nothing happened

      Question, Peter, does the prospect of double dipping by a climate scientist concern you at all, or are your high ethical standards for university R&D reserved exclusively for VCU scientists doing research for Philip Morris?

  5. Kind of odd analogy. Many schools voluntarily shun tobacco money because it kills 480,000 Americans a year.

    And, if you are talking about VCU, the issue was that Philip Morris demanded and got assurances that everything would be secret, including even saying they had research going.

    • There were good reasons to question the VCU deal with Philip Morris, as you and I know because we both wrote about it. Indeed, I backed you in your investigative reporting of the issue for the now-defunct business page of RVA.com.

      All you’re telling me now is that the ethical questions are different in the Philip Morris case from the Shukla case. What interests me is how you got so fired up about Philip Morris, the object of loathing on the left, but utterly reject ethical concerns regarding a scientist loathed by the right. Such attention, you say, smacks of a witch hunt.

      Perhaps your indifference smacks of ideological bias. For my part, I supported your investigation into the Philip Morris contracts, and now I support taking a closer look at Shukla. Also, I have raised the issue of whether the Shukla case raises questions about a broader pattern of behavior among research scientists that transcend the ideological wars over global warming.

  6. re: ” Also, I have raised the issue of whether the Shukla case raises questions about a broader pattern of behavior among research scientists that transcend the ideological wars over global warming.”

    nope – you’re not.

    you’ve trying to use an issue that involves many Universities and many professors of all political stripes across the board including the GMU Mercatus Center – and use it to target specific people whom you disagree politically..

    that’s wrong and and in no way can be classified as legitimate journalism.

    why not – deal with the issue itself – without involving your own politics OR at least admit that the issue involves others also – of varying politics?

  7. This stuff doesn’t pass the sniff test. A prof suggest big energy be looked for RICO. Exxon has been studying climate change since the 1970s. Then a small group of right wing bloggers swings into action to smear the scientists.
    Another problem is that jim has simply dumped his notebook on his. I have tried three times to make sense of his pieces but they are impenetrable.

  8. Oh, BTW,

    Here’s a little something Jimbo isn’t telling you.

    This whole stuff got started with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who has taken $600,000 in donations from the fossil fuel industry.

    As chairman of his committee, he has tried to slash NASA’s budget and put climate change research “On ice.”

    Check this out:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/12/22/meet-the-house-science-committee-chairman-whos-trying-to-put-global-warming-research-on-ice/

    • In PeterWorld, if you can demonstrate an ideological bias by a conservative, that is sufficient by itself to discredit any argument he makes, regardless of the facts he presents.

      In PeterWorld, the ideological biases of those on the left (like himself) are rarely noted, and never a reason for questioning anything they might say.

      In the world of objective journalism, the motives and biases of all sources are acknowledged and the arguments and facts sources make are scrutinized on the basis of their individual merits.

      Go through Peter’s reporting and commentary see how routinely he labels some sources as “conservative,” “right-wing,” or some similar modifier versus how rarely he labels other sources as “liberal,” “progressive,” or “leftist.” What he subconsciously betrays is his own bias on the liberal/leftist side of the ideological spectrum, for he accepts the word of people like himself without reservation, and he deems only those who see the world differently as requiring such labeling and skepticism.

      In each post in this Shukla business, I have made clear that that the people most critical of Shukla are climate skeptics who resent his call for RICO investigations into corporate climate change “deniers.” But that fact does not make them wrong. It does not wish away the facts they present.

      • While I must confess I get a bit of a kick anytime a journalist has egg on his/her face, I must commend JAB for actually correcting himself. The editorial board of the WaPo never corrects itself no matter the falsehoods published.

        A recent example was an editorial blasting Fairfax County GOP delegate Jim LeMunyon for fighting tolls on I-66 inside the Beltway. Yet, the very same media outlet reported (1/27/16):

        “A bipartisan group of seven Northern Virginia legislators have written state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, urging him to widen Interstate 66 before making people pay to use it.

        “State Sens. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax, Loudoun), Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier), Richard Black (R-Loudoun, Prince William), Jennifer Wexton (D-Fairfax, Loudoun), Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William County, Manassas), along with Dels. Michael Webert (R-Fauquier) and David Bulova (D-Farifax) all signed the letter … .”

        So, all and all, JAB gets a big star on the ethics side. And those on the Post’s editorial board, not so much.

  9. Actually, I have every right to ask the political motivations of a politician. You are not addressing my question. Why didn’t you mention the fact that Smith takes lots of dough from the fossil fuel industry? Why didn’t you let on that he’s internationally-known as a climate change skeptic witch hunter. Why should we listen to him? You obviously want another East Anglia wild goose chase.

    The problem with you, Jim, is that you err by omission.

    BTW, here’s what the Guardian of the UK has to say:

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/nov/11/lamar-smith-climate-scientist-witch-hunter

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