Industry influence in universities' shale gas research eyed
Industry and foundation-sponsored research, long a multimillion-dollar enterprise at U.S. universities, is under added scrutiny because of questions about shale gas studies that some universities discontinued or retracted.
Energy industry groups criticize research that environmental foundations pay for, saying they're dedicated to halting industry expansion. But Cary Nelson, past president of the American Association of University Professors, said a lack of disclosure in industry-sponsored shale gas research is more troubling, and the organization will include ways to avoid conflict in its revised guidelines this fall.
Research contracts can range from a few thousand to millions of dollars. They have produced breakthroughs in everything from computing to public health during the past century. But they can produce controversy — for example, “ghost-written” papers that the pharmaceutical industry used to promote drugs, or reports that argued against the harmful health effects of cigarette smoking.
Don Shields, executive director of the Center for Energy at the University of Pittsburgh, points to the ARIES Project, which pools research money from the coal industry into a fund that Virginia Tech administers, as a model for industry research sponsorship. Researchers from Pitt and other universities participate in ARIES, or the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science.
“Their only goal is that good science gets into the public realm,” Shields said.
Nelson said several shale gas studies for which that did not occur raise questions about industry influence:
• The University of Texas at Austin last month retracted a study on the recommendation of an independent panel commissioned to review it after Bloomberg News reported that one researcher did not disclose that he previously received $400,000 as a board member of a company involved in natural gas exploration.
• Officials at the State University of New York at Buffalo decided to close its seven-month-old Shale Resources and Society Institute in November when an internal investigation found a lack of faculty oversight and questioned researchers' ties to industry.
• The North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry lobbying group, canceled a research contract with Penn State University last autumn when some of the scientists declined to participate, citing controversy over a prior study.
Coalition President Kathryn Klaber said the group supports “sound, methodologically proven university research” but questions research funded by groups opposed to natural gas development.
John Hanger, a Harrisburg lawyer and former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said it would be naive to believe shale gas research grants are awearded without an agenda.
“That's true of corporations, but it's also true of foundation money,” he said.
At Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health, where an outspoken researcher's work sparked dispute two years ago, Dean Donald S. Burke said little money is available for independent research. He said the emotional tenor of the shale gas debate made him wary of industry grants.
“My own view is that the science has not moved very far in the last three years,” Burke said. “It's not because these are not important issues, but because there has not been any sustained funding to look into it.
“But if I were to do studies of the epidemiology of shale gas drilling, I would not want to do it with industry money,” he said. “Even if you did it with highest standards and attention to ethics, you would still be subject to criticism.”
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University in Morgantown, has no qualms about industry research grants.
Solid science always trumps influence, he said.
“You can't fool Mother Nature. Your recommendations either work, or they don't work. If everything is open and verifiable, then you can't really lie and get away with it,” Ziemkiewicz said, noting that the institute's Mon River Monitoring Project, which recently expanded to include the Ohio and Allegheny rivers, is funded by the Downtown-based Colcom Foundation, the coal industry and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder, who declined to participate in the Marcellus Shale Coalition research project last fall, views things differently. Engelder said shale gas issues have become so important to the nation's domestic energy production that he believes he can be effective only “if I'm perceived as in the middle of the spectrum between industry and the anti-drillers.”
Burke and Nelson said the natural gas industry could sidestep concerns by forming a third-party clearinghouse to pool industry money and award research grants.
“The industry can afford to fund research that is independent. And that way people who receive it have no idea where it came from,” Nelson said.
Ed Knittel, senior director of education and sustainability for the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, said research on shale gas carries implications for his members.
That's why the group sponsored a $6,000 Carnegie Mellon University graduate research project that developed a database of more than 1,200 studies, papers and reports on shale gas drilling. The database identifies each entry for affiliations with industry, government or anti-industry groups.
Knittel said the association wanted to vet information for members.
“We're not taking a position that ‘this is good' or ‘this is bad.' We're trying to educate our members that you have to be careful of what you're looking at. Some of the things coming from industry may be fair and objective, while others may be promotional,” he said.
Nelson said the American Association of University Professors offers 56 recommendations for those who engage in research, including provisions that the researchers disclose all sources of income for the past five years and that universities list industry funding levels on their websites for 10 years.
“Those recommendations would have prevented what happened at Buffalo,” he said.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.