Sunday 9 August 2009

The Edmund Burke Foundation vs. Big Pharma.

Roots of Dutch climate skepticism series, part 4

As every sailorman knows, sometimes it is necessary to go sideways to move forward. Therefore, in my series on the roots of Dutch climate skepticism, i want to take a stop first at a conservative think thank called the Edmund Burke Foundation (EBF).

While being climate skeptics alright, the main reason for taking a closer look at it is that omerta was broken in Burke : due to fights between members within the foundation, some things came to surface which never were meant to.

Joshua Livestro Edmund Burke Stichting
Joshua Livestro
Having a stop at EBF will give us a much better insight in how think-thanks and can industry can help each other. Or break eachother.

The origine of the Edmund Burke Foundation
In 2000, the organsation was found by Andreas Kinneging, Bart Jan Spruyt and Joshua Livestro
Livestro would leave Burke in 2003 after a conflict and is working as a freelancer ever since. Until 2005, Bart-Jan Spruyt (see picture) would be the most important person in EBF.

The Edmund Burke foundation was set up with something like the Heritage Foundation in mind. Another early contact is the American Enterprise Institute.

About its activities, Wiki learns us that in first era, before 2005 :

the Burke Foundation regularly published reports and studies on a variety of topics, including the Dutch health care sector, privatization, wasteful government spending and conservative philosophy and thought.

Financial Resources. While getting some revenues from private donations, and getting a starting bonus from a Dutch company, the biggest resource would become multinationals.

The Burke Foundation has some political visions which suitd some companies, and this is how they became one the European groups receiving money from Microsoft (for the views on IP).

The jackpot though was hit with the cheques of Big Pharma company Pfizer, which would donate $431,000 between 2000 and 2005.

Geert Wilders
In 2005, president Bart-Jan Spruyt left the original mission of EBF to group conservaties from different Dutch directions. Spruyt openly flirted with the new movement of politician Geert Wilders who in that time was starting a new political party.

Not everyone of the board did share Spruyts' ideas, causing friction. Somewhere along the route, four of the five people of EBF's directive board resigned.
Wilders indeed is a man who is very controversial and who raises much resist by other people, even amongst other conservatives.

In 2006 Spruyt would ultimately end up joining Wilders Party, but only 6 months later he departed the party already, stating Wilders simply is too extremist.

On his weblog Bart-Jan spruyt wrote Wilders' party PVV is "the personification of conservatism based on fear", with "a natural tendency towards fascism"

For a commercial company, any association with Geert Wilders would cause bad publicity. The ties between Burke & Wilders were one of the reasons Pfizer in 2005 decided to stop funding EBF. The other reason is Pfizer started funding another thinkthank which pleased them better.

This left the Burke Foundation as the unbeloved ugly duckling. As said the majority of the Leading board resigned somewhere along the route. And started talking.

Pfizer explains its policy
In October 2005, the influential Dutch weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer ran an excellent article (in Dutch) on the events going on at Burke, and the magazine spoke with a lot of parties involved in this story.

One of the people the magazine spoke with is someone of the corporate affairs division of Pfizer, who had to say :
Indeed, last year we donated money to the Burke Foundation. But we haven't agreed on anything with them for the upcoming year. Nor did the Burke foundation approach us.
In every country where our company is active, we try to feed the public health debate and if the Burke Foundation for the next years has some more promising plans, we will have a serious look a them and take them into consideration.
As we would do with any plan of any thinkthank. But we do are aware of the current events at the Foundation [so funding for the moment isn't very likely].
Do notice the way this corporate man is talking : Pfizer is not just donating money to a thinkthank which has a view which suits them.

What their spokesman says cannot be misunderstood : if you have a plan to "feed the health debate" and tell us how much effort you will put into it, we can see how much money you get.

The story this man is telling is the industry is not just donating money to thinkthanks having a bias that suits them. What he describes is a nothing but an ordinary bussiness deal

You Loose
Pfizer ultimately stopped funding the Burke foundation, to fund a new thinkthank which suited them better than EBF. The consequences were dire :

  • Bart-Jan Spruyt's salary dropped from 75.000 € yearly to zero euro
  • His number of employees dropped to zero
  • thanks to the European Independent Institute (the Burke offshoot which Pfizer started funding after Burke) they were able to keep their office, which they could not offard to pay for themselves anymore.

It shows what every thinkthank accepting corporate money, and every skeptic entering the thinkthank world (which all the best known climate skeptics have done so) has to face: play the corporate game, or get kicked out, with all the consequences involved.

And while for some sort of backgrounds, getting kicked from a thinkthank isn't the end of you, for others it is, especially the scientists, it is more problematic : people like climate skeptics cannot return to regular science, that door is shot. I think that makes it very difficult to leave the lobbyworld.

About the influence of companies on thinkthanks, Bart-Jan Spruyt had the following to say :
Companies nowadays are only willing to donate if they are allowed to decide what our agenda is. An example is a pharmaceutical company which only wanted to support us if in return we'd attack the new plan of minister Hoogervorst of Public Health.
This way, the Burke Foundation would risk to loose its credibility and
independency. It is terrible. I had the choise : continue with this way of funding the foundation, or return to the basics EBF was set up for.

The Burke foundation took a restart and became a small unimportant group, without much media attention.

The bargain Pfizer did
But in the times before that restart, the influence of the corporate money on EBF was substancial : the Burke foundation was meant to be a conservative thinkthank where people thinking alike could gather and debate the big things in life.

The reality after five years accepting money from Pfizer : Nearly half of all the brochures Burke published were dealing with Health care related subjects, instead of dealing with theoretical conservatism.

Diplomat Jess L. Baily, at the time the number two in rank at the US-embassy in Amsterstam concluded :
Pfizer did a great bargain with that Spruyt-guy : for just a little bit of money they gave him, that man manifested himself excellently the way they wanted. The time it lasted, he was in the newspapers everywhere

The lesson we've learnt is clear : while a thinkthank itself may presume that, for a little favor in return, with corporate money they have the chance to promote their own political worldview; the reality is different : by accepting corporate money, a thinkthank automatically partially becomes a tool of its financers.

It's an important lesson for understanding the climate change debate, where nearly all climate skeptics seem to have close connections with free-market thinkthanks. Thinkthanks who in their turn depend on corporate money, like Exxon money.

And at the end, some climate skepticism before bedtime
Even though it never was their core bussiness, the Burke Foundation expressed climate skeptical views. And in 2003, the Dutch anti-environmentalism organisation De Groene Rekenkamer published a "greenbook" in which a lot of environmental issues were labelled 'non-existent' or 'exaggerated'.

Even though nearly everything involving the book was done by the Stichting-HAN (they will appear later in the series) and Kouffeld's Nuclear Energy Foundation, the Burke foundation is mentioned as one the four co-authoring organisations.

How they ended up being involved with a greenbook ? Nescio.


  1. Aha. What we've learned: there may be some corporate money behind the denialist's thinktanks.

    But: who pays the established climate science - the Almighty GODFATHER by heaven's manna?

    Let's think about both sides of the medal ...


  2. Very useful, thanks.

    Unfortunately, in practice, regardless of how they start, most thinktanks turn out to be combined PR+lobbying entities.
    In some places (US at least), they can be non-profits, hence no taxes & lower costs.

    Consider Heartland & tobacco: this or this, or this, amongst many in the Tobacco Archives.

    Companies more often used to band together for efforts like Council for Tobacco Research, and certainly industries have trade associations like American Petroleum Institute, but lately, it seems more "arms-length" to outsource some of the more visible PR to thinktanks, which have an independent identity of their own, and which compete for business, just like other PR agencies.

    If one looks at entities/individuals who fund the thinktanks (in USA; maybe you can comment on mix in Europe), one sees:

    a)Profits: purely-detrimental products like tobacco. In the USA, tobacco has funded a lot of thinktanks.

    b) Profits: products useful, but have localized negative side-effects, like asbestos

    c) Profits: clearly useful products/services, but broad negative side-effects, like fossil fuels produces and other GHG emitters. Of course, energy and (for example) milk are important to people, and the Industrial Revolution might not have happened without coal. Of course, some of these get into b) as well.

    d) Specific wish to lower regulation/taxes/risks for itself. Pharma might well fit this. Pharma produces a *lot* of useful drugs, but there is always tension between costs and profits ... and funding R&D.

    e) General wish to minimize bureaucracy of doing business. This generally seems reasonable,m although some take it to the point of saying "no regulation of anything."

    USA thinktanks are often funded most heavily by wealthy family foundations whose fortunes were built on categories a)-d), like Richard Mellon Scaife's (Gulf Oil).

    Finally, a great "benefit" of thinktanks is that they can proclaim the principles of e), but get most of their funding from a)-d). At least in US, such funding has tended to flow strongest from those who most "privatize the profits, socialize the costs". In some sense, this lets them "hide in the crowd", which they don't get from a dedicated industry body.

    In Heartland's case, one wonders if tobacco funding is down, and if so, does that has anything to do with the recent big boost in climate anti-science.

  3. In the margin of my post i mentioned that next to the political/controversial Wilders issue, there was another breakin point causing Pfizer to stop funding Burke.

    Maybe i should've given more attention than i did. This extra reason is a more "economical" one :

    Burke, as far as i understand, is a foundation which focusses mainly on ethical conservatism, rather than economics.

    In this sense, Burke is not the average "free-market" thinkthank which we meet all the time when dealing with climate skepticism.

    Pfizer started funding the Burke offshoot European Indenpent Institute of which wikipedia writes :

    it was founded by Sander Boon and Eline van den Broek, former members of the Edmund Burke Foundation. The institute focuses on free markets, and is more libertarian than the conservative Edmund Burke Foundation.

    The sources i found all said this difference between the two thinkthanks certainly did play a role too in Pfizers decision to dump Burke.

    Your remark about the possible differences between USA & Europe in what's going on in thinkthanks is an interesting one, but one which cannot be adressed in 5 senteces.

    I think it deserves an post in itself, as the differences between the political culture (well, the entire society actually) maybe can explain why the protestant countries (like USA, Canada, Netherlands) at first glimpse seem to know more climate skepticism than the Catholic countries.

    I think it would be interesting to dig this out.

    I will write a post about how political decision making in Belgium is done. It involves the Unions, nationality, the European Union which has it's headquarters in belgium, etc.

    The upcoming 4 weeks i'm going to be very busy in the real world, so give me the time to write it, will probably only be in September.

  4. It is ironic that conservatives revere Burke, who was in his time and still is one of the greatest liberals of the English speaking world.

    Think tanks of whatever purpose must get funding somewhere. It's chicken and egg whether the funding follows the words or the words follow the funding. Corps fund for the same reasons they advertise and contribute to political campaigns.