Fracking research: playing with fire?

To avoid conflicts of interest, academic research must be transparent and independently funded, says Cary Nelson

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Should researchers confronting negative drilling consequences on or near their own campus tell the university to abandon its lucrative new funding stream?

In the spring of this year, The New York Times reported that the University of Tennessee had won state approval to open bidding to award horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) rights to the Cumberland Forest. Once heavily damaged by strip mining, the 8,000 acres of mountainous land controlled by the university had gradually been restored. Now the risk of toxic chemical spills would put its ecological diversity at risk again.

“Frackademia” has become the preferred term to describe the new partnerships forming between academia and the fracking industry.

Leasing land for conventional oil exploration has long been common in Texas and elsewhere, but the footprint for an established oil well is rather modest – about the size of a compact car – and the risks of an oil spill from a given traditional oil installation are minimal.

Not so for fracking. The infrastructure required for a fracking operation is substantial – it includes huge processing stations that push the gas into national pipelines. Toxic spills and air pollution are relatively common.

A report on the environmental risks of fracking (“Environmental impacts during Marcellus shale gas drilling: Causes, impacts, and remedies”) was issued on 15 May 2012 by the State University of New York at Buffalo’s now defunct Shale Resources and Society Institute. Some of the researchers who wrote it had long histories of fracking advocacy and fracking industry funding, and the report raised the bar considerably for what would count as a “serious” spill of toxic chemicals, up from 100 barrels in a 2011 report to 400 barrels in 2012. But even in the Shale Institute’s report, the statistics showed an increase in the number of serious environmental violations between 2008 and 2011: not what you would want threatening your college dormitory.

As a National Geographic article detailed in March (“The new oil landscape: The fracking frenzy in North Dakota has boosted the US fuel supply – but at what cost?”), fracking also requires the bringing in of a substantial workforce that often disrupts the local economy, along with large-scale trucking operations that create clouds of dust and long-term noise pollution. And some of the chemicals pumped into the ground to break up deep shale deposits and release the natural gas – including naphthalene, benzyl chloride, toluene and formaldehyde – are proven carcinogens. Other dangerous components include lead and hydrogen fluoride.

Many would argue, therefore, that there is a conflict of interest between Tennessee’s profit motive and its duty of responsible stewardship of the historic forest. But the full menu of conflicts in force when universities become fracking partners is greater still. Frackademia constitutes a new institutional identity formed by a mixture of political and financial pressures, an identity that can compromise both the environment and academic research.

Tennessee counters that a portion of the royalties it receives from fracking will fund faculty research on the costs, benefits and safety of the extraction process. But that puts university researchers in an uncomfortable and compromising position: if the research confirms that the dangers are real, they must decide whether to warn their own colleagues and administrators about the downsides of this controversial drilling technique. In other words, should researchers confronting negative drilling consequences on or near their own campus tell the university to abandon its lucrative new funding stream? For researchers, that pressure creates a distinctive new conflict of interest.

This is not to imply that the traditional conflicts entailed in industry-funded research are insignificant or irrelevant. Despite the fact that industry contracts are always time limited and often subject to renewal, academics engaged in industry-funded research still establish institutes, rent space, hire research assistants and receive salary supplements and other financial benefits. Thus, there is considerable pressure to satisfy their bankers and renew these grants.

As the American Association of University Professors states in Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships, a book to be released by the University of Illinois Press early in 2014, industry-funded research is far more likely to reach pro-industry conclusions than research that is peer reviewed and independently funded.

The bias built into the impulse to satisfy one’s industry masters is often unconscious or carefully rationalised. But if a faculty member even appears to have been financially influenced to reach a particular conclusion, the resulting opinion is essentially worthless. For research aimed at establishing a material truth, such results amount to propaganda, not science.

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