Comings and Goings in Frackademia

Thanks to reporting by Steve Horn and others, here is a summary of recent events in the world of "frackademia" (the pseudo-science practiced at our great- and not-so-great universities-for-hire).

  • On December 6, the University of Texas has "... accepted the findings of a damning independent review of the preparation of a report on potential impacts of shale gas drilling by the school’s Energy Institute. The school said it will undertake six recommended actions, the most significant being the withdrawal of papers from the Energy Institute’s Web site related to the report until they are submitted for fresh expert review. In its news release, the university said that the lead investigator, Professor Chip Groat, retired last month and the institute’s director, Raymond Orbach, resigned." [quoted from The New York Times.]

    Steve Horn notes that Professor Groat received more than double his academic salary through payments from the oil and gas industry. He was the lead author on an industry-commissioned (but not disclosed) "study" called "Separating Fact from Fictioin in Shale Gas Development," which has been cited as "independent science" bearing the imprimatur of the University of Texas.

  • As reported previously, faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-AB) recommended closing it's "Shale Resources and Society Institute". On November 19, the University President did just that (as reported here). The precipitating event was the publication of a paper called "Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies". All the co-authors of this "study" have strong industry ties.
  • Also on December 6, faculty at the Community College of Philadelphia have called on the College to "... immediately sever all ties to the Marcellus Shale Coalition [the gas industry's lobbying and public relations umbrella] and halt the implementation of any workforce training efforts related to the shale-gas fracking industry." (See our full story here).
  • On the other side of the ledger, the University of Michigan appears ready to leap into to gap which other institutions have opened. Another report from Steve Horn notes that the University will be conducting a two-year "study" on the ecological impacts of fracking, with a "steering committee" larded with industry "experts".

University research sells out to business

Also see this recent article by Wenonah Hauter.

In 1862, the federal government created the land-grant university system to produce critical agricultural research. Since then, America has relied on these schools to inform and guide independent scientific advances in areas like food production and energy development.

Yet public funding for that kind of research has eroded over recent decades, and these schools have turned to corporations to augment their budgets. The consequences of increasing dependence on profit-driven research in academia are becoming troublingly clear. The recent exposure of numerous sham scientific reports generated by biased individuals at supposedly objective institutions should draw intense public scrutiny to this new era of corporate-funded science.

While drug makers and other industries have spent heavily in academia for years, a relatively new player in corporate-influenced “research” is the natural gas business. Awareness has grown recently of the serious environmental and health dangers associated with fracking — the highly controversial drilling process that has opened up millions of acres of domestic land to shale gas production by blasting water and toxic chemicals underground at great pressures. In response, the industry has become extremely aggressive in its attempts to influence academic reporting on the subject.

Consider the State University of New York at Buffalo and its now-defunct Shale Resources and Society Institute. In May, the institute released a report claiming that improving technologies and updated regulations were making fracking safe. But to SUNY Buffalo faculty, students, and community members, something smelled fishy. The nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative, based in Buffalo, scrutinized the report and did some additional digging. What it found was alarming.

Despite the report’s conclusion stating the contrary, an analysis of its data actually showed that gas fracking is causing more environmental contamination than ever. Even more telling, researchers determined that the report’s authors had all done previous work directly funded by the oil and gas industry, and that significant portions of the report had been copied directly from a previous industry-funded paper.

Under intense pressure from the university community, including the Board of Trustees, the institute that had released the skewed report was shut down by SUNY Buffalo’s president in November.

An isolated incident? No. The University of Texas at Austin announced on Dec. 6 that the head of its Energy Institute had resigned over allegations of conflicts of interest, ethics violations and industry influence regarding another pro-fracking study its institute had released in February. In the fallout, the university is currently updating its conflict-of-interest policies.

As for agriculture, corporate influence now appears to be routine. Beginning in 1982 with the Bayh-Dole Act, our land-grant schools have been encouraged to partner heavily with the private sector. By 2010, almost a quarter of all the grant money for agricultural research came from industry, with companies like Walmart, Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s receiving unencumbered access and exerting great influence on many campuses nationwide.

The integrity of the “science” produced under this funding regime is troubling, but not surprising. The nutrition school at the University of California, Davis is researching the health benefits of chocolate with funding from the Mars candy corporation. A study supported by the National Soft Drink Association found that soda consumption by school children wasn’t linked to obesity. An Egg Nutrition Center-sponsored study determined that frequent egg consumption didn’t increase cholesterol levels.

More broadly, corporate funding steers agricultural research toward the goals of industry. It discourages independent analyses that might be critical of the many hormones used in industrial meat and poultry production, and genetically engineered crops that are now widely grown.

With the health and safety of our families and our communities hanging in the balance, it’s time to demand more transparency and less corporate influence from our research universities.

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch. Its website is

White paper from the industry:

Want to know what the industry is thinking about how to manage the Anti-Fracking movement. Here is a report we were able to find that was published in Nov. 2012