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Controversy Surrounds Science Group’s Stance Against Distribution of Gore Film

By Sean Cavanagh — November 30, 2006 8 min read
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A prominent science educators’ group has drawn the wrath of supporters of “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore’s film about global warming, as well as some of its own members, by turning down a request that it distribute 50,000 free copies of the movie.

The decision by the National Science Teachers Association to reject the offer from the documentary’s makers prompted one of its producers to question the organization’s motives. She noted that NSTA has received contributions from oil companies that have disputed some assertions about climate change.

Officials of the association said they rebuffed the producers’ proposal to have NSTA distribute DVD copies of the film to the group’s membership because such a move would have violated the science group’s policy against endorsing outside organizations’ products and messages.

But producer Laurie David suggested that the NSTA may have been motivated by fear of alienating corporate donors. She cited an internal e-mail communication from the association in which the science organization said distributing the film would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

Ms. David raised those issues in a biting Nov. 26 commentary in The Washington Post, pointing in particular to contributions to the NSTA from the foundation of the ExxonMobil Corp. “That’s the same ExxonMobil that for more than a decade has done everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming and stifle any serious effort to solve it,” she wrote.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Yesterday, NSTA’s 13-member board of directors held a conference call to discuss the issue formally. Board officials agreed to reiterate an offer they say they had already made to Ms. David: to make the organization’s members aware of “An Inconvenient Truth” through other means, such as mentioning it in the association’s publications. Still, the board voted unanimously to uphold its initial decision not to distribute the film directly, NSTA Executive Director Gerald F. Wheeler said in an interview.

Yet NSTA officials acknowledge their decision has drawn a strong reaction from some of the organization’s 56,000 members. President-elect John Whitsett said he had received at least 500 e-mails from teachers, some arguing that the association should have distributed the film, and others questioning the money it receives from corporations.

“Many of our members are very angry,” said Mr. Whitsett, a former physics teacher who is now a curriculum- and instructional-support administrator in the 7,600-student Fond du Lac, Wis., school district.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Despite the outcry, he said he believes NSTA officials made the right call in turning down the filmmakers’ offer. Corporations—including oil companies—have provided vital financial support for some of the organization’s most successful educational programs, Mr. Whitsett said. NSTA officials also have a strict policy to make sure those contributors do not influence the curricular materials and other classroom resources delivered to science teachers, he said.

“That’s the piece that is absolutely ironclad,” Mr. Whitsett said. “The money is controlled by NSTA, and the projects are controlled by NSTA.”

Alternatives Presented

Ms. David, who did not respond to interview requests, is a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group, and founder of StopGlobalWarming.org, according to the author identification that appeared with her Washington Post commentary.

The NSTA has received $6 million over the past decade from ExxonMobil’s foundation, she noted in the piece, which appeared on the front page of the newspaper’s Sunday opinion section.

The money has supported the NSTA’s Building a Presence for Science program. That effort originally focused on improving K-12 science standards, NSTA officials said, and now centers on identifying a “point of contact,” such as a science teacher, on science education issues in schools. “Not once has ExxonMobil asked to use this network for their purpose,” NSTA officials said in a Nov. 28 statement.

The NSTA has also secured funding from the Shell Oil Co., based in Houston, and from the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based advocacy organization for the oil industry—though NSTA officials said that partnership with the API ended five years ago.

Sixteen percent of the NSTA’s $22 million annual budget comes from corporate donors, and roughly 4 percent comes from energy companies, according to Mr. Wheeler, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based group. The rest is taken from membership dues—$74 a year for experienced teachers—and publications sales, convention revenue, and other sources, Mr. Wheeler said.

Other corporate backers include the Toshiba Corp., an electronics manufacturer, and the Toyota Motor Co., which provides $10,000 annual scholarships to teachers.

Critics have long accused ExxonMobil, a major oil and gas producer with headquarters in Irving, Texas, and other oil companies of downplaying the impact that human activity and industry have on global warming. ExxonMobil officials dismiss such criticism; the company recognizes the harmful effects of greenhouse emissions and supports attempts to control them, particularly through advances in technology, said spokesman Dave J. Gardner.

“An Inconvenient Truth,” which opened in May, has taken in about $24 million at the U.S. box office and $11 million internationally. The film, released on DVD in November, chronicles the efforts by Mr. Gore to raise public awareness about global warming, and discusses the implications of rising temperatures on the environment and society. The former vice president was the Democratic nominee for president in 2000 and is seen by some political analysts as a possible contender in 2008.

Mr. Wheeler said association officials presented a number of alternatives to supporters of the film, such as providing them with mailing lists of NSTA members or telling members where they could obtain free DVDs, but now had to conclude that those options had not satisfied the critics.

The executive director said NSTA will send a letter to Ms. David offering to provide a link to information about the film on the organization’s Web site, which he estimates draws 2 million page views per month. The association will also offer to mention the film in a weekly e-mail message known as an “e-blast” which reaches 250,000 members, Mr. Wheeler said. In addition, the executive director said NSTA will invite Mr. Gore to speak at the organization’s annual meeting. In terms of outreach to NSTA members, those options would exceed the direct-distribution proposal sought by the filmmakers by “a factor of ten,” Mr. Wheeler said.

The executive director acknowledged that the organization had made reference to its capital campaign in an e-mail to the film’s supporters. He said an NSTA employee had solicited input about the filmmakers’ request from other employees, including the organization’s marketing and development staff. One employee, in an internal e-mail exchange, mentioned the potential impact on NSTA fundraising; that comment was mistakenly included in the e-mail response to the film’s supporters, Mr. Wheeler said.

Though he said the NSTA “didn’t do a good job” of explaining its reasoning, Mr. Wheeler dismissed the idea that his organization had been swayed by funders’ views on global warming.

“People were disappointed because they thought we had a conflict of interest,” Mr. Wheeler said of reaction from NSTA members, “but we don’t have a conflict of interest.”

“We follow the scientific line [on global warming],” he said. “We’re very neutral.”

The NSTA does not have an official position statement on global warming; the organization typically only takes positions on issues directly affecting science education, not about science itself, spokeswoman Jodi Peterson said. When the organization last year released a statement defending the teaching of evolution, for instance, it did so because the issue directly concerned education, she said. Classroom treatment of the theory of evolution has been the subject of policy debates and court cases in recent years.

Mr. Whitsett, the NSTA president-elect, said the board could review its funding policies at a meeting scheduled for February, if not sooner. But he said that the NSTA’s position on distributing materials for outside organizations had remained firm, despite 200 to 300 such requests per year, he estimated.

‘Happy to Distribute It’

Wayne Carley, the executive director of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Biology Teachers, which has 7,500 members, said NSTA officials’ concerns about aligning themselves with a particular message were overblown.

“My immediate reaction is, I’d like to get 7,500 free [DVDs] to send to my members,” said Mr. Carley, who said that his organization competes but also collaborates with the NSTA. “If something is of educational value—and that film absolutely is—we’d be happy to distribute it.”

Mr. Carley did not fault the NSTA, however, for taking contributions from oil companies or other corporations. He said his organization, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million, receives about 1 percent of its revenue from private companies, and he wishes it could attract larger donors.

“There’s no problem with accepting that money,” he said, “as long as there are no strings attached.”

But Brad Shipp, the national field director for the advocacy group Students for Academic Freedom, said that if the NSTA had distributed Mr. Gore’s film, it might have sent an implicit message of approval to teachers. His Los Angeles-based group says it works to remove bias—often targeting what it sees as liberal bias—from K-12 and college teaching.

Had the NSTA mailed out the DVDs, Mr. Shipp said, it is possible that political conservatives would have accused the organization of partisanship, given Mr. Gore’s association with the film.

“He’s a politician,” Mr. Shipp said. “We should not have a politician dictating what we should be teaching.”


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