That’s the title of an article I’ve in Nature tonight on the World Innovation Foundation, a Bern-based charity, which I found operates in fact largely out of a one-man building consultancy in Huddersfield, a town in Northern England.
Some 3,000 scientists, including more than 100 Nobel laureates, have apparently accepted membership of a body called the World Innovation Foundation (WIF), which claims to be a powerful world-changing network to provide “the technological tools and miracle technologies that we shall all need to solve the world’s impending global problems”.
No fewer than four Nobel laureates hold executive positions in the WIF’s governance, according to its website: Jerome Karle, William Knowles, Robert Huber, and Yuan Lee. Huber, described as vice-president, claims that he has no recollection of joining the organization. “I am not aware what this organization is,” he says.
Yuan Lee, a 1986 Nobel laureate in chemistry, says he has had “very limited” involvement with the foundation that amounted to accepting a 2002 invitation to join, signing a WIF letter opposing the Iraq war, and accepting in 2004 the position of the WIF ‘national representative’ in Taiwan. Since accepting this position he has had no dealings with the WIF, he says.
Nature polled several WIF fellows who advertise their fellowships on their websites. What emerges is a pattern whereby scientists join on the strength of the list of existing members, but know little about the foundation or its activities.
The WIF, which has no full-time staff or offices, was founded by David Hill, who runs a construction consultancy in Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire, UK. He first registered the WIF as a series of private UK companies in the 1990s, and then in 2005, as a foundation in Bern, Switzerland. Hill, who holds an honorary doctorate from the National Academy of Kyrgyzstan, continues to operate the WIF from Huddersfield alongside his private business and says he spends half his time on the foundation free of charge.
Bern’s Chamber of Commerce lists the WIF’s current legal structure as a foundation with four directors: Hill; Lutz Baehr, former executive director of the African Development Bank; Christopher Leuch, a Bern-based attorney specializing in tax matters; and Dialog Treuhand, a Bern-based accounting firm. Although a charity, its accounts are not public. Under Swiss law a foundation has no obligation to publish its accounts, says Leuch.
Among the WIF’s stated goals are the creation “for the future benefit of all humankind” of the ORE-STEM Complex, a proposed US$22.5 billion proposal it describes as a “scientific, technological, engineering and manufacturing complex — the world’s largest open-research establishment. Equipped and operational for 20,000 leading-edge scientists, engineers, technologists and innovators”. It has been a goal for a decade, but so far it exists only as a web page on the WIF’s site. The plan is still in a preparatory phase, says Hill, “the drawings and documents for the ORE-STEM are confidential”.
“It is a mysterious organization,” says Ian Pearson, a WIF fellow and a former futurologist at British Telecom, “I was invited to join a couple of years ago and allowed them to re-use one of my articles for their web site, and that is the last contact I had … It says at the outset that it works in secrecy, so of course there is no way of knowing whether it is extremely active or totally defunct.” Pearson adds that he is likely to remove the WIF honours from his website.