The University at Buffalo is shutting down its controversial shale institute amid mounting public scrutiny and criticism.
UB President Satish K. Tripathi made the announcement Monday in a campus email, which offered several reasons behind the decision to close the university’s Shale Resources and Society Institute despite the fact that it opened less than a year ago.
At the heart of the matter was growing public suspicion and a “cloud of uncertainty” hanging over the institute and its research on the natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Ties to the oil and natural gas industry – both real and perceived – compromised the appearance of the institute as an independent entity conducting objective research on an inflammatory public issue.
“Research of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work,” Tripathi wrote.
“Because of these collective concerns, I have decided to close the Shale Resources and Society Institute.”
Opponents of fracking applauded the news.
“[UB] really stood up for principles of academic integrity by shutting down the institute,” said Kevin Connor, co-director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group critical of the institute and its initial findings.
“There have been a series of missteps in the administration’s handling of this, and I think they finally got it right today.”
UB’s decision to close the institute is an about-face from April, when the institute was unveiled.
A month later, the institute released a controversial report that fracking – a drilling technique that pumps water, sand and chemicals into the shale so the gas can escape through its pores – has become safer, thanks to state oversight and better industry practices.
Opponents concerned about fracking’s environmental risks pointed out the authors’ ties to the oil and natural gas industry.
John P. Martin, the institute’s director, is in Saratoga Springs and does consulting and public relations work for the energy industry. The report’s lead author, University of Wyoming Professor Timothy J. Considine, has conducted other research with funding from the drilling industry.
Meanwhile, sloppy errors in the report, accusations that parts were plagiarized and questions about the way it had been peer-reviewed fueled concerns about academic integrity and suspicions that results were influenced by the oil and gas industry.
UB said that it received no funding from the industry, but a coalition of faculty and students continued to demand that the university release more details about the funding, founding and staffing of the institute.
Their opposition was heard all the way to Albany, where the board of trustees for the State University of New York wanted more information, too.
UB provided a report to SUNY in September, but the university pulled the plug on the institute before the SUNY board came to any conclusion on the matter.
Connor credited the UB faculty members and students – the UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research – who raised questions about the institute in the last several months.
“It’s been a long effort,” said English Professor James R. Holstun, chairman of the UB coalition. “This decision offers an opportunity for the UB administration to enter more directly into the nationwide conversation about conflict of interest, academic integrity and the responsibility of public higher education to its owners: the public.”
In his email, Tripathi said he decided to shut down the institute after consulting with faculty members, Provost Charles F. Zukoski and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, E. Bruce Pitman.
As part of his reasoning, Tripathi said the institute lacks the faculty with the background in natural gas production from shale.
Also, he said, UB needs to further clarify its policies for accepting research funding to avoid potential conflicts of interest in the future.
The president reiterated that it’s imperative that faculty research meet rigorous standards of academic integrity, transparency and ethical conduct. Tripathi further explained that he still wants UB to play a lead role in researching energy and environmental issues.
“To do so,” Tripathi said, “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.”