Ever since November 2009, when the New York Academy of Sciences published a Greenpeace-authored, anti-science book titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, several friends of mine have been digging to try to find out why that decision was made and who made it.
Ted Rockwell, a long-time member of the Academy, has written several op-eds and worked hard to politely ask the leaders at the Academy to repudiate the work since it clearly rejects many established principles of the scientific method. The Academy promised Ted more than a year ago that it would conduct a review of the document, but so far, that review has not been completed or released to the public.
Aside: Please visit the “Related Posts” section below for links to more of the backstory if this topic is new to you. This is already going to be a lengthy post. End Aside.
I recently received two updates to the saga that deserve to be more widely shared. The first is a response letter from Douglas Braaten, Director and Executive Editor ANNALS of the New York Academy of Sciences, to one friend who has been investigating the story. He explains a bit more about the episode from his point of view.
On behalf of the Academy, I write in response to your 4 July email to various NYAS Board members concerning publication of the Chernobyl volume in our journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
In collaboration with Dr. Timothy A. Mousseau, Professor of Biological Studies and Dean of the Graduate School, University of South Carolina, the Chernobyl project was originally taken on, developed––including the choice of Janette Sherman-Nevinger as consulting editor and the decision to translate the volume––, and accepted by the Annals Executive Editor (EE) at that time under the direction of the Vice President (VP) of Publishing and Communications (a position that no longer exists at the Academy). The volume was published online on 30 November 2009.
In April of 2010 the Academy posted an online statement
95-8d38-d59a76d1ef33 indicating that the volume is a translation of a book previously published in Russian that presented a series of meta-analyses of 100’s of scientific studies that had been published in Slavic language journals. The Academy statement also mentioned that the Annals Chernobyl volume was not a study by or for the Academy; that the Academy provides an open forum for discussion; and that the authors were solely responsible for the content.
In late March 2011, George Monbiot, a reporter with The Guardian, wrote to me asking for details on the review process for the Chernobyl volume. I explained the details of the Annals editorial practices and procedures in place at that time. Monbiot published a statement from the Academy in The Guardian that read:
In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer-reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else.
Efforts continue to have the Chernobyl volume evaluated by a group of peers. The volume is no longer for sale (all copies sold covered production costs) and a second printing is not planned. The licensing rights for the volume have been returned to the authors, so they can distribute it as they wish (the Academy will thus not benefit financially from future sales of the volume). Besides our effort to review the volume, at least two Academy-independent reviews have been published (included as PDFs), accompanied by a response by the authors of the Chernobyl volume.
As we wrote in our online statement of 26 April 2010, “the Academy is committed to publishing content deemed scientifically valid by the general scientific community, from whom the Academy carefully monitors feedback.” At this time we are prepared to post on the Academy website commentaries on the Chernobyl volume that speak to its scientific merit and which are not simply ad hominem attacks (all commentaries will be evaluated by the Academy before posting). And when our peer evaluation of the volume is complete, we will post whatever the evaluation consists of.
I hope these comments are helpful to you.
That response raised more questions than it answered for my friend, so she crafted the following letter and sent it to Dr. Braaten. She later gave me permission to publish her letter, saying that she wants a wider audience to understand the issues that she is raising about the process used before publishing the non-scientific report with the credibility associated with the NYAS:
Thank you for your reply of July 7 to my email inquiry to the Board of Governors Chairman regarding the decision-making re. the Chernobyl volume 1181 of the NYAS Annals. I am glad to hear that there will now be some space given on the website for commentaries to be posted relating to this work. That is a step forward. However concerns remain about decision-making about this publication.
In reflecting upon your comments from which I learn that there was no contact made with the Governors, at least officially, prior to deciding to take this project on, I realize that the decision to translate and publish the Yablokov Chernobyl Annals volume cannot have been taken in isolation from CEO Ellis Rubinstein who has been in post throughout this period and under whom budget decisions are directed. In the absence of any involvement or knowledge by the Board of Governors about this decision, it is to Mr. Rubinstein that questions about decision-making are therefore properly addressed and who must surely bear the main responsibility for decision-making on this matter. Your own role is of having supported the original decision, I assume, because had you been unable to accept the reasoning behind publishing the work, or had you found any of the faults to be cause for concern that, for instance, Dr. Monty Charles has found in the work (see below), you surely could not have stood by and allowed this publication to proceed as it has done.
It is no secret what the provenance of the manuscript is. In 2006 Greenpeace published a report with a similar name to the one published by NYAS, called The Chernobyl Catastrophe: Consequences on Human Health and author Alexei Yablokov was highly involved in that volume. In his Preface to the book, Yablokov refers to the background work by Greenpeace and others. Most of the content and most of the sources cited are the same, I believe. There were some updates between the Greenpeace Report and the NYAS Annals volume but otherwise nothing substantially changed, I believe. Thus, notwithstanding the collaboration with an American university scholar, Dr. Timothy Mousseau, there are some questions that need answering.
1. What is the reason – or the reasons – that this manuscript was taken on as a project? As the only guide regarding its scientific merit was the 2006 Greenpeace report – and the opinion of already ‘biased’ people such as the authors or Janette Sherman-Nevinger – would it be true to say that Ellis Rubinstein, yourself, the previous Annals Editor and the VP of Publishing/Communication were satisfied there was sufficient confidence in such sources to justify a decision to translate and publish? It would seem that you were indeed satisfied because the point leads directly to my next question.
2. Why was no review done prior to publication? How was it justified that a review of the contents of this work was unnecessary before committing the august and important reputation of the New York Academy of Sciences to the work? You say that a review is being done now – but this is after a fait accompli. The horse has bolted and it is too late to close the gate. I believe it is the first time in the history of Western science that the normal protocol of review prior to publication has been violated. Yes, I understand all the points made in your email and on the website regarding this being a previously published work but this in no way stands up as an argument for putting it out in print and online prior to a special review process at the NYAS.
3. Given the two questions above, could it be the case that just four people working for the New York Academy of Sciences opted to use the auspices of the institution to enable a contentious piece of work to gain credibility and standing? Did political (cause-based) motivation take precedence over scientific motivation?
Although your April 26 web statement says “The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own”, and it is credibly claimed in the same short statement that the role of the NYAS is to provide ‘forums’ for the discussion of scientific matters, these disclaimers cannot over-ride the reality that the name of the Academy has been given to work that was not reviewed/evaluated before it was published. I would therefore say that such disclaimers are eviscerated of real meaning by the event of publishing itself. Exactly the same points could have easily been made by enabling this work to be honorably discussed at the NYAS without it actually being published by the Academy. Another publisher should have taken responsibility for its publication. Instead of this course of action with the manuscript being taken, four people appear to have proceeded to exploit the good name of the NYAS without any reference to the Board of Governors before doing so.
Although you may point out that there are many scientists’ work cited from various Slavic journals and other documents, checking those sources cannot be done at all easily, as Dr. Charles comments in the review article you sent me. The playing field is therefore not level. Sources remain shrouded in obscurity. No one can get to the bottom of things and actually pass a well-informed detailed opinion on it. This loses credibility for the work, not gains it. But that is less my concern than the propriety of having taken the decision to “take it on” in the first place.
I submit that for any English-speaking audience reading the book by Yablokov et al published in the NYAS Annals, English language sources of investigation are needed, otherwise one is simply taking things on faith. This is so unusual that one must question the judgment of the people who took the decision to publish this Yablokov work. Obviously we are bound to ask: Why would virtually none of the ‘results’ found by Slavic scientists have appeared in English-speaking journals anyway? It is not as though there is a shortage of translators that any serious scientist could employ to get their work onto the world stage. I believe translation into English is done all the time by other non-English speaking scientists, so what is holding the Slavic scientists back from joining the rest of the community? I am sorry but it is not credible to point to sources that no one can check out properly as having unquestionable “merit” for the NYAS to have taken this work on. It is about as dubious as saying because Mr Yablokov thinks he is right, we are happy to let his words go out under our name… This has never been done in science before, Dr Braaten, for the good reason that science came into being as a necessary and inevitable advance on people using ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ and ‘anecdote’ to explain nature and the world.
There is one other point that somehow has been found acceptable to the four NYAS staff members responsible for publishing this work, namely the point that the Russian authors are claiming regarding the uniqueness of the Chernobyl event. We are asked to give credence to the assertion that because Chernobyl was a “unique event”, the authors of the Annals volume are justified in using methodologies that are in contradiction to the methodologies used by the rest of the scientific world. This point is made throughout the work, I believe. How can such an approach not have raised alarm bells with anyone working at the NYAS? The answer has to be that there appears to have been a deliberate decision to treat this work differently from anything else published through the Annals. Can you think of any other instance in which you would accept the argument that something is so “unique” that it requires a re-writing of large sections of science and methodology, not to mention casting explicit doubt on the integrity of many other scientists working for international organizations?
This is another grievous aspect of the whole affair so far as I am concerned. The claim is clearly made that data has been ignored and downplayed by international scientists and that funding for research has been withheld because of pressure from the nuclear power industry. But that claim belies a set of presumptions which have not yet been proven as valid science. And someone also needs to do the numbers about how much money has been spent on research into Chernobyl effects, and also on money spent to help those whose lives were upended by this terrible accident in order to reach clarity about this allegation by Yablokov and others.
Where any journal Editor would give pause for thought about the various points I am making, it seems that you and predecessors and Mr Rubinstein thought it was just fine to go ahead without checking it out with any of the Board of Governors with scientific credentials whose names have now been firmly tied to this Annals volume for all the world to see – with two very evident results: confusion for many people and exploitation by other people with axes to grind. For myself and others this is unaccountable without drawing the conclusion that the name of the Academy has been used for non-scientific purposes, either through negligence or through conscious intention. Either that or even deeper waters are flowing in the Academy, yet to come to light, surrounding energy sources for the world and the competition between them, which may have played a part in the entire affair.
I will appreciate hearing any comments you may have in response to these points and questions. This matter concerns the world and it is important that we receive your best efforts to explain your decision-making. Otherwise I feel there should be a formal investigation of the manner in which this legal contract to translate and publish was drawn up, and a conclusion reached on whether the time has come for the NYAS to withdraw all association with the work by making a very public statement.
There are several aspects of this episode that sound like deja vu all over again. There was a recent flurry of attention to a press release by the IPCC claiming that one of its future scenarios showed that the world’s economy could move to nearly 80% renewables energy supply system. After a bit of digging, several journalists, including Mark Lynas determined that the source of that attention grabbing headline was a scenario written for the IPCC report by Sven Tske, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International.
There is something terribly disturbing about finding out how formerly respectable scientific bodies have been purposely infiltrated by representatives of groups with declared agendas to stop the use of nuclear energy and to promote far less capable and more expensive energy production systems.
After I do some additional research, I hope to be able to tell you more about my suspicion that there is a shadowy Russian oil oligarch involved in the decision to publish the Chernobyl Consequences book.
Update (Posted July 29, 2012) I apologize for not updating this post earlier with information that I discovered about Len Blavatnik, a Russian-American philanthropist who has made billions of dollars as the founder of Access Industries, a holding company with wide ranging interests.
A key part of the foundation of that almost unknown entity is a significant ownership in a Russian oil company named TNK-BP that it owns as part of the AAR consortium (Access Industries, Inc., Alfa Group Consortium and Renova Group of Companies). TNK-BP is Russia’s third largest oil company in terms of reserves and production.
Here is a quote from Blavatnik’s short bio on the page describing his role as a member of the Board of Directors of the NYAS.
Raised in Russia, he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1978 and became a U.S. citizen in 1981. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University and his MBA from Harvard Business School.
Blavatnik founded Access Industries in 1986. Access became part of the AAR consortium and obtained a major ownership interest in Russian oil and gas reserves through a company called TNK during the confused period following the fall of the Soviet Union. Here is a link to the first New York Times article about BP’s purchase of a 50% share in the TNK owned oil resources – BP Signs Deal With Russians For Venture In Oil and Gas.
The New York Times has a lengthy library of stories about the travails of TNK-BP, which has been making news again as the AAR consortium seeks to buy out the BP share of the company. Here is a quote from one of the stories about the complexities of those negotiations Call it right and Russia will be BP’s pot of gold
At present, BP’s major partners are Alfa Access Renova, a consortium led by four Russian oligarchs for whom the word “compromise” comes just under “weakness” in the Russian dictionary. You could write 50 columns on the legal battles between AAR – joint stakeholder in TNK-BP – and BP, and still be little clearer on who is actually right or wrong. What you do know is that whatever progress is made with AAR, for BP it is never easy.
Now can you see why I have some really strong suspicions about the way that some staff members at the NYAS decided to publish a book that wildly disputes accepted science and provides a hugely negative slant on nuclear energy? Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment has been used widely by antinuclear activists in their battles against the only technology whose capabilities pose a real threat to oil and gas domination of the lucrative energy market.
How much would a growing energy supply from a more logically accepted nuclear industry reduce the wealth and power of people like Len Blavatnik? How much would that reduction hurt their ability to donate massive amounts of cash in an effort to buy influence at places like the NYAS and major educational institutions like Cambridge University and Harvard Business School (two places where Blavatnik sits on the academic board.) End Update.