Wednesday, June 13, 2012

University Dean Probed on UB Shale Institute and Funding Sources

By David Kowalski ~

The Capitol Pressroom for June 7, 2012 ~

Host Susan Arbetter interviewed Dr. Bruce Pitman from the State University at Buffalo (UB) about the recent fracking-related study issued by the new UB Shale Institute. Pittman is Dean for Research and Sponsored Programs at UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and a Professor of Mathematics. 

Transcript of Susan Arbetter's Introductory Remarks: So a few weeks ago, the University at Buffalo’s new Shale Resources and Society Institute released its first study, titled “Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts, and Remedies.” Immediately Artvoice, which is an alternative newspaper in Buffalo, raised questions about the study: who funded it? What are the authors’ ties to industry? Those questions snowballed, and were being asked by larger news organizations like the Associated Press. Further discrepancies were uncovered between what the lead author claimed in a UB press release and what was actually claimed in the study, including one claim that the report was peer reviewed when it was not. All these criticisms culminated in an unflattering report by the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative, a report that you can see online [see below]. All of this highlights questions about research funding in general, especially in light of the troubled history at the SUNY Research Foundation, and what some news outlets have called the veil of secrecy over Research Foundation funding. 


You can listen to all of Arbetter's remarks and Pitman's responses online in the audio recording here, starting at 23:18 minutes into the recording. There is also an MP3 clip containing only the Pitman interview (starting at 0:00 minutes) that can be downloaded here (courtesy of Robert Galbraith).

Read the full interview in a transcript here (courtesy of Jim Holstun).


During the interview, Pitman acknowledged that he gave the support to create the Institute, and that he appointed the Director and the Co-Director, and got the Institute started.

Concerning the claim in the UB press release that the study was "peer-reviewed", which was later retracted, he said "That was an inarticulate phrase in the press release, right?"

Merely 'inarticulate'? Not incorrect and misleading? Surely the newspapers that highlighted this story with sensational headlines were misled after reading the erroneous "peer-reviewed" claim in the press release and other misleading claims (see below).

At the end of the interview, Arbetter asks, "But would you admit that there were mistakes made with this report?" 

Pitman replied, "There are certainly some typos in the report. I’ve been in touch with the author about one or two that I spotted when I read the report. I think they’re going to be issuing an errata with those typos. There’re a couple of them. If you’re asking do I want to distance myself from the report or anything like that, Susan, I think the report stands on its own merits."

Just 'typos'? Really? Nothing of substance that might be misleading and convey a shale-gas industry bias? No other mistakes?

I can think of a few mistakes.

A major mistake was the failure to disclose sources of funding for the study. The absence of transparency in an academic setting is intolerable. This, together with the authors' ties to the gas industry pose an obvious conflict of interest.

If you read the Shale Institute study, which few have likely done, you can see the flaws and biases that were detailed in the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) review. That review also found that entire passages of the study were copied, without proper attribution, from an earlier pro-fracking report, according to the PAI. This is not simply a mistake, but more like academic dishonesty.

The UB press release for the shale study stated that "The report finds that environmental events are declining and suggests that proposed regulations in New York could mitigate future problems." While newspapers grabbed that sentence to make sensational headlines, the number of environmental events actually increased, not decreased. This is a very, serious mistake. Unfortunately, it led to misleading, attention-getting newspaper headlines.

The study did not demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between State regulation and environmental events, contrary to the message that many got from the newspapers. In fact, within the Shale Institute study (page 15) the authors stated explicity: "While difficult to conclusively illustrate causation between regulatory actions and decreases in environmental violations, the history of regulations in Pennsylvania suggests such a relationship may exist." The difficulty to conclusively show this cause and effect relationship in the report did not stop the authors from claiming such a relationship in the UB press release. Here's one example: "This study presents a compelling case that state oversight of oil and gas regulation has been effective," lead author Timothy Considine said. The press release contains additional examples.

Finally, the authors' claim that proposed New York regulations could mitigate future problems was merely wishful thinking. Like Considine's conclusion stated in the preceding paragraph, this claim was not supported by any data.

The Shale Institute paper was not an objective study. The authors' conclusions were not drawn not from direct evidence. Instead, their conclusions were biased in favor of existing state regulations and the gas industry, to which all of the authors have ties. The authors responsible for this paper are certainly not representative of the university's excellent research faculty. 

Dean Pitman recommended in the interview "a few people at least should read the report, look at the analysis, look at the analysis from API’s [sic, PAI’s] study." In the spirit of scholarly academic pursuit, it's only fair to recommend that Dean Pitman and others at the university do the same.

On May 25, 2012, regarding criticisms of the authors' conclusions, Dean Pitman said "UB will examine all relevant concerns, in accordance with the university's strong commitment to academic and research excellence." 

The University at Buffalo should also investigate whether the Shale Institute and it's industry-tied authors share that same strong commitment to excellence and merit UB sponsorship.

UPDATE: New reports on the UB Shale Institute

Institute’s Gas Drilling Report Leads to Claims of Bias and Concern for a University’s Image, by Mirea Navarro, The New York Times, June 11, 2012. Questions about data and the authors’ industry ties have surrounded a study about fracking in Pennsylvania that was done by a new research arm at the State University at Buffalo.

Fracking Research and the Money That Flows To It, by Mirea Navarro, The New York Times, June 12, 2012. The University at Buffalo says the money came from discretionary funds in the budget of the College of Arts and Sciences but that the new institute is seeking funds from the natural gas industry and other sources.

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