Monday, September 10, 2012

What's Wrong with Frackademia?

The Texas Observer ran another story about financial ties between the oil and gas industry and universities. This is a topic I have noted in several posts on this blog.

So, is there anything really wrong with industry-university ties when it comes to shale gas research and the training of regulators? One way to look at this is in terms of the responsible conduct of research. Maybe the problem is that researchers are violating scientific norms of disinterestedness, universalism, and skepticism. This could cover a spectrum of possible ethical concerns. On the low end, would be perceived conflicts of interest: perhaps academics should be more transparent about their funding sources, but they do not influence their studies or results, so there is no actual conflict of interest. On the far end, we could imagine full blown fabrication and falsification of data in order to yield "scientific conclusions" that "confirm" foregone industry positions about the safety of fracking.

It would require more research than I have seen in stories on this subject to suss out the real story. For example, is there anything suspect in terms of scientific misconduct in the UT report that would indicate prejudgments were replacing scientific skepticism and empirical evidence? But I find it hard to believe that there would not, at least, be all sorts of subtle pressures not to displease one's industrial benefactors.

Of course, those opposed to fracking may not really care if there are actual conflicts of interest. The appearance is enough to raise doubt and discredit the study. But this approach to science knows no end. One can always find ways to cast suspicions on authors, agencies, institutions, and their motives. This is a game that industry plays too. It ends up with everyone appealing to 'the science' and everyone discrediting the science they don't like as tainted and junk.

But we can also view this issue not in terms of conflicts of interest and scientific misconduct, but rather in terms of what I want to call "inherent bias." Many scientists are doing research aimed at improving oil and gas extraction - this research can be done perfectly honestly and responsibly (no misconduct) but it still has an inherent bias, that is, an interest in the well-being of the oil and gas industry. This  kind of bias may be even more troubling than outright misconduct. At least misconduct can be spotted and rooted out in specific instances. By contrast, inherent bias pervades an entire institution, establishing a general orientation, priorities, and research agenda. It would mean, for example that a university flush with industry cash does not investigate potential health, environmental, or justice problems associated with oil and gas. It would establish a pro-industry culture that would be largely unwritten and unconscious; a kind of given framework for approaching the world. It would produce honest research, but research that is systematically directed only toward certain aspects of the whole picture.

This is what is really troubling about univesity-industry ties: not the false answers to tough questions (although that is of course a big concern) but the tough questions that go unasked.

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