A group of more than 200 prominent scientists and academics published an open letter Thursday to the American Museum of Natural History, urging one of the country’s eminent cultural institutions to remove billionaire Trump donor Rebekah Mercer from its board.
The letter, signed by such climate science luminaries as James Hansen, a former NASA scientist and professor at Columbia University, and Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, takes the museum to task for accepting donations from the Mercer family, which has funded several groups involved in climate denialism and opposition to government action on climate change.
“The most important asset any museum has is its credibility,” the letter reads. “This can be damaged by ties to donors and board members who are publicly known for investing in climate science obfuscation and opposing environmental solutions.”
A copy of the Mercer Family Foundation’s most recent tax records shows that the family in 2016 gave a combined $4 million to groups that deny that climate change is a problem, including the Heartland Institute, the CO2 Coalition, and the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. (It gave $625,000 to the American Museum of Natural History.) Arthur Robinson, the founder of the the Oregon Institute, has infamously claimed that increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will benefit the planet. The records, which have not yet been reported, were obtained by the Climate Investigations Center, an environmental watchdog group, and given to BuzzFeed News.
A statement released by the museum in response to the letter said "the Museum deeply respects the work and view of scientists," but added that it "does not make appointment decisions concerning staff or Trustees based on political views."
The Mercer family, secretive billionaires who are among President Trump’s most powerful donors, have also funded a variety of right-wing political causes, including the conservative activist group Project Veritas, the Government Accountability Institute, a conservative research group; and Breitbart News. Last year, a BuzzFeed News exposé revealed the connections among the Mercers, Breitbart, and white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
Rebekah Mercer and a spokesperson for the family did not respond to requests for comment.
The Mercer money, and Rebekah Mercer’s seat on the American Museum of Natural History’s board, has caused dissent within the institution itself. In early 2017, a group of 20 museum employees began to discuss how disturbed they were that Mercer — who had funded climate science denial groups and helped elect a president who would gut the EPA — was on the AMNH board. According to a source, a smaller set of around 10 employees filed complaints with the museum’s human resources department.
The open letter is part of a larger effort organized by the Natural History Museum, a nonprofit group that has no affiliation with the American Museum of Natural History.
“Trusted science itself is needed now more than ever," said Beka Economopoulos, the executive director. "When you have a climate science denier in a leadership position at a science museum, it erodes the public trust, and it leads visitors to question the validity of the content they’re seeing."
The group has previously pressured museums, including the American Museum of Natural History, to cut ties with the Koch brothers, other major conservative funders and fossil fuel interests.
Zahra Hirji contributed additional reporting to this story.