Carbon Engineering: Perhaps my most obvious conflict of interest pertains to Carbon Engineering (CE). My involvement with CE ended November 2023 with its sale to Occidental Petroleum. I no longer have a role in the company, nor do I hold any equity in it. There are reasonable concerns about oil companies getting involved in cleantech businesses such as CE, and I offered my opinion on some of these issues in a 2023 piece in The Economist.

A clear conflict of interests existed between my work for CE and my work on solar geoengineering research because CE has a strong interest in avoiding links to the politically fraught topic of solar geo. I offered my take in a 2018 blog post, Why I am proud to commercialize direct air capture while I oppose any commercial work on solar geoengineering.

There was also a conflict between my academic and company roles. In my view, an academic working near the intersection of technology and public policy should represent the current state of technology as fairly as possible without oversell or favoritism; by contrast, a company official—using salesmanship to make the case for the company’s technology—can show favoritism but must be bounded by honesty. These roles conflict any time an academic is involved in a company connected with his or her research. I tried to minimize this conflict by stopping academic research on direct air capture when CE was founded and by drawing a clear distinction between my public comments as an academic and my public comments as an official at CE. (The few papers we published on CE’s technology after formation were published with CE employees, not academic researchers from my group.) 

Research funding: Research requires money. Any research funder influences the direction of research by what they choose to support. Conflicts of interest arise when funders influence research results or researchers’ public statements.  

One of the most obvious concerns about solar geoengineering is the possibility that the fossil fuel industry or fossil-rich nations will exploit it to reduce the pace of emissions cuts—a concern I first raised as a “moral hazard” in print in 2000. I use several strategies to manage conflicts of interest with the funders of my research.  

First, I work to maintain a pool of funding from multiple funders. Second, I refuse anonymous donations. Third, I take money from private donors or foundations only if minimal strings are attached (e.g., donations in the form of grants and not contracts). At Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, we had an explicit policy of rejecting donations from fossil fuel-associated donors. 

Finally, I have chosen not to patent solar geoengineering technologies, for reasons I describe here

Consulting and advising: I do almost no consulting for industry. (In the early 2000’s, I did one small consulting job for Shell’s Alberta CO2 disposal well, and I have done a handful of speaking 

gigs (e.g. for Apple) for which I was paid a consulting fee). My CV lists the formal advisory boards or panels that I serve on. I have also done lots of pro bono informal advising, mostly to environmental groups. 

Philanthropy: Over the last few decades most of my philanthropy has been limited to giving a fraction of my academic salary to environmental advocacy groups such as Sea Shepard and to mainstream groups including The Wilderness Society, NRDC, and EDF. I am now starting to play a much larger philanthropic role, since I plan to give away the vast majority of the proceeds I received from the sale of CE to Oxy. 

Ego: Once an academic establishes expertise on some topic or becomes a proponent of some position, then the need (or egotistical desire) to maintain one’s position can conflict with a commitment to unbiased research. Most obviously, it becomes much harder for that person to acknowledge mistakes. More subtly, becoming prominent in a field may influence one’s choices about research direction or (even worse) choices about the research itself. I have been guilty of these academic sins and am on my guard against temptation.