Rethinking Fracking Research

SUNY Buffalo ends center that was accused of failing to disclose the corporate ties of its scholars.

November 20, 2012

The State University of New York at Buffalo is eliminating a research center whose objectivity has been questioned and whose studies have been controversial in the debate over fracking.

Satish K. Tripathi, president of the university, announced the decision in a letter to the campus that cited a number of reasons for shutting down the Shale Resources and Society Institute. Its work on fracking (formally hydraulic fracturing, a process in which materials are pumped into wells to stimulate production of natural gas) has supported industry views that it can be conducted without environmental damage -- a view opposed by many environmental groups and many scholars who are not affiliated with the institute.

Critics have accused the institute of publishing studies that have not made sufficiently clear the ties of researchers to energy companies that support fracking.

Tripathi's letter did not completely endorse that view, but he said that "[c]onflicts -- both actual and perceived -- can arise between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results. This, in turn, impacted the appearance of independence and integrity of the institute's research."

He elaborated on his view of a report that has been the focus of much of the criticism. "The university upholds academic freedom as a core principle of our institutional mission. With that being said, academic freedom carries with it inherent responsibilities," Tripathi wrote. "The Shale Resources and Society Institute's May 15, 2012, report, 'Environmental Impacts during Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts, and Remedies,' led to allegations questioning whether historical financial interests influenced the authors' conclusions. The fundamental source of controversy revolves around clarity and substantiation of conclusions. Every faculty member has a responsibility to ensure that conclusions in technical reports or papers are unambiguous and supported by the presented data. It is imperative that our faculty members adhere to rigorous standards of academic integrity, intellectual honesty, transparency, and the highest ethical conduct in their work."

Further, Tripathi said that research "of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work."

Tripathi also said that while the university's policies on financial disclosure "are strong and consistent with federal guidelines, these policies are in need of further clarification and because of this lack of clarity were inconsistently applied." He announced that the university is creating a committee to come up with ways to strengthen the policies.

The faculty members who worked at the institute will maintain their department-based jobs, and will be free to continue to pursue work on fracking or other topics. (Some of the controversy involves work published by the center, but conducted by scholars who are not based at Buffalo.)

Last month, a group called UB CLEAR (for University at Buffalo Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research) sent a report to the SUNY Board of Trustees, criticizing the Buffalo administration for not moving more quickly to respond to concerns about the institute. The report said that the institute violated numerous norms for research centers by, for example, failing to disclose funding of a lecture series, failing to disclose industry ties of scholars whose work the center published and refusing to engage in discussions about possible errors in the work the institute released.

Officials of the center did not respond to phone or e-mail requests for comment.

Jim Willis, editor of Marcellus Drilling News, a publication that favors fracking and has criticized the Buffalo faculty for questioning the shale institute there, said via e-mail that he felt "sadness" over the decision. "I think the UB administration has caved to outside pressure. The very 'controversies' and the 'cloud' that exists over the Shale Institute was put there by agenda-driven anti-drillers. They successfully ginned up the controversy so they could then call for the elimination of the institute. Sad, really. A modern-day witch hunt....  So much for free speech, scientific inquiry and a deliberative, rational process. UB should be ashamed."

But James Holstun, a professor of English who is the chair of UB CLEAR, said he viewed Monday's news as a tribute to the way "thousands of people worked to keep their public university public." Holstun said that in an era when public universities seek outside support for research, it's essential to have full disclosure of funding sources so that people can be alert for conflicts of interest. "We need clear information so universities don't lose their souls and don't lose their integrity," he said.

Holstun also said it was inaccurate to say that his group was trying to block research. "The opposition has not been opposition to research on fracking, or to industry funding of research, but an insistence on transparency," he said. "The shale gas industry doesn't want transparency on its research because that delegitimizes the propaganda they can buy."


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