Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shale Institute Study Compromised Research Integrity

Letter to the Editor of the UB Reporter
By David Kowalski ~

In addressing the controversial UB shale institute study, Provost Zukoski stated, “It’s important to note that no concerns regarding the report have been raised by the relevant scientific community.” President Tripathi stated in a report to SUNY Chancellor Zimpher and the SUNY Trustees that “No concerns were raised by the relevant scientific community about the data used in developing the report’s conclusion.”

I am a scientist (professor emeritus, Roswell Park Cancer Institute), a UB research professor and an experienced peer reviewer. I have reviewed the study by the UB shale institute (Shale Resources and Society Institute) entitled “Environmental Impacts during Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts, and Remedies.” My comments are below.

The authors listed academic affiliations in the study, but no industry ties. John P. Martin, institute director, owns a consulting company that produces public relations reports for oil and gas interests, and two co-authors have received past support from gas-industry groups. The authors’ gas-industry ties raise concern about conflicts of interest.

The objectivity of the study was compromised in favor of the gas industry and existing state regulations. The authors’ conclusion that major environmental events per gas well were declining in Pennsylvania was not drawn from their data. Based on the data, the rate of major environmental events actually increased by 36 percent in the period studied. This information was not displayed in the graphs shown. The increased rate of major environmental events and the fact that the study made no attempt to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between state regulations and environmental events invalidates the study’s conclusions that the “odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation” (p.iii), and that “the percentage of wells resulting in a major environmental event declined significantly, an indicator that the attention of regulators was focused on the areas of greatest concern (p.30).

The authors’ conclusions on cause and effect directly contradict a statement in the results section of the study: “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.” (p.15)

The following statement is pure speculation and not a valid conclusion: “Findings indicate that each of the underlying causes associated with these specific events could have been either entirely avoided or mitigated under New York State’s proposed regulatory framework” (p.iii and a related statement on p.30).

Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Energy Program, was one of the reviewers selected by the authors. After the study’s release, he wrote: “While I was a reviewer, this does not mean that all of my suggestions were taken or that I agree with all of the report’s opinions and conclusions.” He added: “Caution should be exercised with regards to some of the conclusions.”

Later, the shale institute authors released a revised version of the study with minor changes. However, they did not correct the invalid conclusions described above. 

Originally, the authors claimed incorrectly that the study was “peer-reviewed,” giving it an aura of scientific authenticity that it did not deserve. That claim helped attract media attention to the study’s invalid conclusions, resulting in misleading newspaper headlines and reports. The “peer-reviewed” claim was retracted by UB after the press release, but the damage in the newspapers had already been done. 

At this critical time in determining policies on fracking in New York State and the nation, it is outrageous that invalid conclusions in the study were made public and promptly cited as an authoritative source in Congress to influence policymakers. 

The shale institute aims to attract funding from various sources, including the oil-and-gas industry. Would the industry fund studies that did not prove its case? Will UB be vigilant enough to prevent promises of industry funding from dictating the institute’s conclusions?

Reports from the provost and the president cited above upheld the shale institute’s use of an “open peer-review method” for the “self-published” study.

However, open review of the institute study was ineffective. Reviewers who identified invalid conclusions have no power to enforce revision or rejection of the self-published study.

The shale institute study should have been peer-reviewed through an academic journal. In this case, if reviewers identify invalid conclusions, the journal editor has the power to enforce revision or rejection of the study for publication.

Scientists rely on the rigorous and critical peer-review process to ensure research integrity. The objectivity of the UB shale institute study was compromised. The authors should have been held to the same high standards of peer review as the UB faculty.

Published in the UB Reporter: Oct. 25, 2012

Post Comments to the letter at the UB Reporter website. The link is here.

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