"What to DO when the Devil offers you a Deal" is the provocative title of a lecture delivered by U. Illinois Professor Cary Nelson at the University at Buffalo Law School on November 5th.
Professor Nelson is an expert on academic-industry ties, having co-authored a comprehensive study, Recommended Principles & Practices to Guide Academic-Industry Relationships (13 June 2012; 268 pp.) Among the topics covered, the report emphasizes the responsibilities that come with industry funding, including the public disclosure of conflicts of interest.
Conflicts of interest in academic-industry relationships became a controversial topic at UB this year. A Shale Institute (formally named the Shale Resources and Society Institute), was unveiled at UB in April 2012 and released its first report in May 2012. Major errors committed by the authors sparked the controversy. For example, the authors did not disclose in the report their ties to the shale gas industry and how their efforts to create the report were funded. The authors' ties to the gas industry constitute a conflict of interest, and their undisclosed funding sources raise serious concern about financial conflicts of interest.
In addition to the failure to disclose conflicts of interest, the report carried a false claim of peer review, which was later retracted by UB. The report also contained substantive mistakes leading to invalid conclusions that favored the shale gas industry. A detailed analysis of the report by the Public Accountability Initiative identified serious flaws, and exposure of these and other flaws in Artvoice, blogs and letters, local news created outrage on campus and in the community, leading to the formation of UB CLEAR, the Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research.
At the start of his lecture, Professor Nelson cited UB CLEAR's success in getting a conversation started in the Buffalo community, and helping get the national conversation started. He said "This is a really, important story and I think that UB CLEAR has helped give it national visibility."
Threats to Academic Freedom
In his book, No University Is an Island, Nelson lists threats to academic freedom, including diminished or dysfunctional shared governance.
During his lecture, Professor Nelson said "I think shared governance here at UB needs some work. Complete shared governance would have produced a more accurate relationship between the Shale Institute mission statement and its personnel."
Nelson added that the UB President follows the lowest standards on conflicts of interest available, and that it would be better to follow the highest standards. He said "Point in Case: you can not evaluate the fracking industry if they are paying you, or have paid you in the past."
In terms of the Shale Institute, he said "what was needed was disclosure of at least five years of relevant industry support." Disclosure in the report itself could be abbreviated, and supplemented through a website link included in the report.
Should the Shale Institute be shut down?
A member of the SUNY Board of Trustees stated earlier that the Shale Institute should be shut down.
Nelson said "Personally, I'd want to reconstitute it, or I'd want to identify it as a unit to promote economic relations between the university and the fracking industry, and strip away its academic identity, which I don't think it has upheld in a credible way."
He added, "So, if you want to keep something that provides a dynamic relationship with fracking, make it what it is! You know, a promotional enterprise, an ad campaign for the fracking industry, rather than something that pretends to be a vehicle for disinterested research."
"I don't think as it's presently constituted that it is fulfilling its mission. I think that you have work to do to correct that problem in the way which you see best," Nelson said.
"Obviously, disinterested research can be done, given the subject matter," Nelson said. "And obviously given the pressure to increase exploitation of shale oil and gas in the country, there need to be university voices on the matter."
"I think the [Faculty] Senate should take an interest, if they're going to do it, in having more diversity of opinion making certain that there are multiple sites of shale industry research that are independent of one another on campus, rather than one high profile site with a particular ideological bent," Nelson said.
I would add here that the desire to connect with industry needs to come from full-time faculty experts who are earnestly interested in performing objective research for the benefit of society and in publishing it peer-reviewed, academic journals.
Instead, the Shale Institute's deep connections to industry arose from a UB dean (Pitman) interested in raising funds (including gas industry funds) to build a new program, a part-time UB geologist (Jacobi) who is a consultant and former employee of the gas industry, and a lobbyist/employee of the shale gas industry (Holbrook) who is a former co-worker of the UB geologist. In this setting, who better to help raise industry funds, to serve as director of the new Shale Institute, and to act as principle author of the first report than oil and gas industry consultant, John P. Martin?
Improper Administrative Defense of Shale Institute Report
In reference to the Shale Institute's first report, Nelson said "I don't think that the Administrative defense of the report has also been, by any means, proper or appropriate."
"One of my arguments about full FCOI [financial conflict of interest] disclosure on a public website is that an administrator can just go to the website and type in the name of the person or persons involved in the report and see what their history of funding is, on a paper or public presentation, and recognize whether some skepticism is appropriate."
"I assume with FCOI disclosure, UB would have been less likely to issue press releases celebrating [the report], or defending it in the press," Nelson said.
According to Professor Nelson, part of the advantage of FCOI disclosure is that it prevents administrators from making mistakes and being deceived by the caliber and independence of the report.
"I'm assuming that, to some degree, administrators here erred in good faith, that they were perhaps bamboozled. But by recognizing the degree of the history of involvement by the authors of the report ... they wouldn't have been willing to get behind it," he said.
An Academic Crisis and an Opportunity
Professor Nelson thinks that the local crisis around the Shale Institute is "a wake-up call that can get more energized faculty working in the [Faculty] Senate" and for the Faculty Senate to "take a more aggressive role in program oversight."
"It almost never happens without a crisis," Nelson said. He added that "UB CLEAR helped create the crisis. It helped create the knowledge base that makes people aware that a crisis has occurred."
Nelson emphasized that the weakening of the Faculty Senate and relatively passive faculties follow a national pattern, not just a local problem at UB. He said that "it accompanies a more centralized administration and a diminution of faculty role."
But Nelson sees an opportunity that could emerge from the crisis. With enough solidarity, he thinks "the [Faculty] Senate can revive itself in months." He's hopeful that the crisis produces that in order to "redress the balance of academic oversight, which the institution needs."
So what should You DO when the Devil offers you a Deal?
In reply to his own question, Professor Nelson said "You should say no. But,the history of demonic-academic collaboration suggests faculty members might need just a little help in resisting temptation."