A Science Denier at the Natural History Museum? Scientists Rebel

Protesters at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Sunday. Records show that Rebekah Mercer’s family foundation supports groups that reject established climate science.

Rebekah Mercer, a supporter of President Trump and an influential donor to conservative causes — including groups that deny climate science — is under renewed pressure to step down from the board of New York City’s most prominent science museum, the American Museum of Natural History.

This week, more than 200 scientists and other academics who have advocated policy action on climate change endorsed an open letter that calls on the museum to remove Ms. Mercer from its board and “end ties to anti-science propagandists and funders of climate science misinformation.”

Among those who signed the letter, which warned of “a loss of public trust,” were Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, and Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.

“The museum deeply respects the work and views of scientists — both those who work as colleagues at the museum and those from the broader scientific community,” the museum said in a statement to The New York Times. “We also respect and understand scientists’ role in society, including adding their voices to political debates that relate to scientific issues.

“The museum itself, however, does not make appointment decisions concerning staff or trustees based on political views,” the statement continued. “The museum has long maintained that its funders do not shape its curatorial decisions.”

A spokeswoman for Ms. Mercer did not return calls seeking comment.

Whether cultural institutions should consider the personal and political allegiances of their contributors remains thorny territory, particularly since nonprofit organizations can rarely afford to turn away generous donors like the Mercer family.

Such questions were raised recently in connection with reports linking the Sackler family, prominent cultural donors, to the company that produces OxyContin, the powerful painkiller that has been involved in opioid overdoses. And some objected to the renaming of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fountain plaza after the conservative philanthropist David H. Koch in 2014 (he gave $65 million).

“A political litmus test for who should serve can be very destructive to a nonprofit institution,” said Reynold Levy, the former president of Lincoln Center. “As long as the mission and important portions of the program are supported by the trustee, what they do in the political world shouldn’t be relevant.”

A similar effort by scientists, in 2015, called on the museum to cut ties with Mr. Koch, then a trustee. Less than a year later, having served on the board for 23 years, Mr. Koch resigned. At the time, both Mr. Koch and the museum said that the resignation was unrelated to the pressure campaign.

In March last year, a group of employees filed complaints with the museum’s human resources department in an attempt to spur an internal conversation about Ms. Mercer’s role on the board, but nothing came of it, according to one person involved in the effort who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions.

The museum emphasized that scientists and educators at the museum make decisions about scientific and educational content, not trustees and donors.

“We believe that human-induced climate change is well-supported by scientific evidence and is one of the most serious issues currently facing our planet,” the statement said. “We are deeply committed to presenting evidence-based, scientific information about climate change to a broad public.”

The latest push to oust Ms. Mercer from the museum board was spearheaded by the Natural History Museum, a nonprofit traveling museum that also led the 2015 drive to remove Mr. Koch.

“Museums are among the most trusted sources of information in society,” the organization’s co-founder and director, Beka Economopoulos, said in an email. “Having a science denier and top funder of climate science denial campaigns in a leadership position at a science museum undermines the institution’s credibility.”

Ms. Mercer, a daughter of the hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer, has been on the museum’s board since 2013. The Mercer Family Foundation has long supported a variety of conservative causes, including Breitbart News, the influential right-wing website founded by Andrew Breitbart and until recently run by Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist.

The Mercer family publicly distanced itself from Mr. Bannon this month after Mr. Bannon’s provocative remarks about Mr. Trump were reported in Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

Tax records show that the Mercers have given a little over $19 million to a variety of conservative groups, including at least three that reject the scientific consensus around fossil fuel-driven climate change: the Heartland Institute in Illinois, as well as the CO2 Alliance and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. The foundation has given nearly $5.9 million to the Heartland Institute since 2008, compared to about $4 million to the museum since 2012.

The Mercer Family Foundation has also donated to New York City hospitals as well as the National Youth Science Foundation, which runs summer camps. But most of its money goes to conservative causes.

The foundation’s 2016 return is not yet available on the Internal Revenue Service website. It was shared with The Times by the Climate Investigations Center, which tracks funding for organizations that reject established climate science. It is based in Washington and is supported by anonymous donors seeking to limit the risks of climate change.

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