The University at Buffalo’s president announced Monday that he would shut down the school’s controversial shale-gas research institute, less than two months after he penned a letter defending it to the SUNY Board of Trustees.
In an open letter, UB President Satish Tripathi said he decided to close the university’s Shale Resources and Society Institute after consulting with top administrators. The institute, which was launched earlier this year, had found itself under a cloud of criticism for an inaugural report that was authored by researchers with considerable ties to the natural-gas industry.
“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,” Tripathi wrote. “Because of these collective concerns, I have decided to close the Shale Resources and Society Institute.”
The Shale Resources and Society Institute was launched earlier this year as a branch of the university dedicated to researching hydraulic fracturing and other issues related to shale-gas drilling. It released its first report in May, which had claimed Pennsylvania’s regulation of hydrofracking had become more effective in recent years and that New York’s proposed regulations would be even more so.
But the report led to allegations of bias and questions about how the institute was funded, in part because it had at one time sought industry funding and its co-director was being paid by the UB Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm.
Eventually, the SUNY Board of Trustees got involved, asking for the university to defend the study and clarify the circumstances surrounding the creation of the institute. In late September, Tripathi and university officials complied with SUNY’s request, defending the institute and its research.
Tripathi’s full letter from today is after the jump, officially closing the book on the institute:
Dear University Community:
Issues related to energy and the environment represent a critical, broadly defined area of inquiry in the 21st century, one of tremendous and growing scientific, social, and economic importance. There is therefore a vital need for the highest quality of research, scholarship, and educational initiatives in these areas.
Given our geographic situation as well as our extensive faculty expertise in issues related to energy, water, and the environment, the University at Buffalo is positioned to play a leading research role in these areas. Understanding and addressing these issues effectively therefore requires a program of sufficient scale to encompass the scope and complexities of this topic.
To fulfill UB’s mission of academic excellence, it is imperative that our research is of appropriate scope, and that it has strong faculty presence. Moreover, conducting research that has such profound environmental, societal, public health, and economic implications requires that we adhere to the utmost standards of academic integrity and transparency. It must be remembered that the issues associated with natural gas production from shale are broad and complex, with extensive public implications. It is with these considerations in mind that we must assess the mission and practices of the Shale Resources and Society Institute.
After consultation with faculty and our academic administration, Provost Zukoski, Dean Pitman and I concur that:
— Research of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work.
— While UB’s policies that govern disclosure of significant financial interests and sources of support 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. (To remedy this, UB has established a committee with participation of the faculty senate with the goal of developing recommendations to strengthen and clarify our policies in these areas.)
— The institute lacks sufficient faculty presence in fields associated with energy production from shale for the institute to meet its stated mission.
— Conflicts-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.
The university upholds academic freedom as a core principle of our institutional mission. With that being said, academic freedom carries with it inherent responsibilities. 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.
Because of these collective concerns, I have decided to close the Shale Resources and Society Institute.
To leverage our university’s considerable faculty expertise in the area of energy and the environment and to address these issues with appropriate breadth and complexity, UB will establish a comprehensive program of scholarship and education that addresses issues in this broadly defined area of research. Accordingly, I have asked Provost Zukoski to work with academic deans, the vice president for research and economic development, and the faculty researchers across the disciplines who have expertise in this broad field to create a faculty-driven process that provides appropriate scope and scale for UB’s scholarship in energy and environmental sciences.
As a leading research university with a long history of leadership in sustainability, water, and energy-related issues, the University at Buffalo has the potential to be a leading voice in this national and global conversation. Across the disciplines, we have a number of faculty experts who are conducting vital research in these areas. We need to bring these faculty together and harness their intellectual energy in order to address these issues in an interdisciplinary, comprehensive, and focused way. UB can be a key institutional leader in this critical field of energy and the environment. To do so, we need to be deliberate and thoughtful, with an eye toward the long-range implications of this research, which has tremendous local, national, and global impact.
Satish K. Tripathi