University at Buffalo rejects call for transparency at Shale Institute

The controversy surrounding the University at Buffalo’s shale institute continued to grow yesterday, with the university’s administration rebuffing a new coalition’s calls for transparency at the institute.

Last month, PAI released a report identifying significant errors and distortions in a report released by the University at Buffalo’s brand-new Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI). The report claimed that hydrofracking was becoming safer, but misread its own data in making the claim, copied entire passages from a pro-fracking Manhattan Institute report, and showed clear signs of pro-industry bias and poor scholarship.

A new coalition of UB students and faculty, the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research (UB CLEAR), formed in response to the problems surrounding SRSI and the report and yesterday staged a press conference calling for an investigation into the founding, funding, and hiring process at the recently-launched institute. From the Buffalo News:

A new institute at the University at Buffalo is damaging UB’s credibility, and operations should cease until more is made public about its origins, staffing and funding, some faculty and students said Thursday.

The controversy surrounds UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute, whose April unveiling was followed up a month later with a controversial report that the form of natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is safer thanks to state oversight and better industry practices.

“Attaching the University at Buffalo name to this report has damaged the university’s reputation for credible scholarship,” said Leslie Nickerson, a UB doctoral student, “and it raises question about the legitimacy of using public university resources in support of corporate objectives.”

The university has issued a number of non-responses since PAI, Artvoice, and others identified problems with the report and with SRSI, and it followed up with more inaction yesterday. According to a statement released yesterday by the University at Buffalo, “U.B. has no plans to alter or suspend the operations of the Shale Resources and Society Institute,” despite UB CLEAR’s calls for an inquiry.

James Holstun, a founding member of CLEAR, told the New York Times that the group takes issue with the “extraordinary irregularities and breaches of academic practice and ethics in the institute’s founding, funding, hiring, and publication,” concerns not addressed in the university’s response.

At its press conference, the coalition issued a report card for the Institute, giving it failing grades in the subjects of Transparency, Independence, Academic Rigor, Institutional Procedure, and Accountability. UB CLEAR called for the university to suspend funding for and publications from the institute; to release all documents bearing on the formation of the Institute, its staffing, governance, oversight, and funding; to provide an independent investigation into the Institute’s formation and industry ties; and to hold an open forum for U.B. and other community members to raise their concerns and receive answers.

In its statement, published on the school’s website, UB’s spokesman said: “The university upholds academic freedom as a core principle. In accordance with this principle, faculty members are free to conduct research on any topic, including controversial ones, and to disseminate their findings without prior review or approval by the university.”

A core aspect of academic freedom, of course, is freedom from inappropriate corporate influence, something the American Association of University Professors points out in its new report on academic-industry partnerships:

PRINCIPLE 2—Academic Freedom, Autonomy, and Control: The university must preserve its academic autonomy—including the academic freedom rights of faculty, students, postdoctoral fellows, and academic professionals—in all its relationships with industry and other funding sources by maintaining majority academic control over joint academy-industry committees and exclusive academic control over core academic functions (such as faculty research evaluations, faculty hiring and promotion decisions, classroom teaching, curriculum development, and course content).

Though this is principle #2 in the AAUP report, university administrators have shown little concern for assuring the public – or even UB faculty – that this report was safeguarded from inappropriate industry influence and that SRSI is controlled by the academic community – not by the industry.

This point is perhaps even more notable in light of the fact that the study at issue was not authored by UB faculty, but rather by Timothy Considine, an economist at the University of Wyoming; Robert Watson, an associate professor of petroleum and gas engineering at Penn State; Nicholas Considine (son of Timothy), who works for his father’s energy consultancy, Natural Resources Economics; and John Martin, the Shale Resources and Society Institute’s co-director and principal of his own energy consultancy. The report authors have much stronger ties to the natural gas industry than they do to the University at Buffalo.

James Holstun told the Times that UB was setting up a straw man with its calls for academic freedom: “The statement stands up stolidly for academic freedom, perhaps hoping that its readers will suspect that somebody has attacked it…Nobody has.”

If there is an attack on academic freedom here, it’s coming from industry itself.

Update: Click here to read Artvoice’s attempts to correspond with UB’s overpaid administrators about SRSI and UB CLEAR’s demands.

This post was co-authored by Kevin Connor.