Desmog Blog goes on to say that the RPSEA is an instance of frackademia.Let me say that I am not in favor of the RPSEA. But I don’t think this is a good example of frackademia – at least not as defined by Desmog Blog. Rather, I think this is an instance of a much more insidious problem.
They define frackademia as follows: “flawed but seemingly legitimate science and economic studies on the controversial oil and gas horizontal drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), but done with industry funding and/or industry-tied academics ("frackademics").”I think it might be better stated as violations of scientific norms of responsible conduct. I wrote about this in an earlier post. The extreme version of frackademia, so defined, would be “scientific” conclusions that “confirm” foregone industry talking points, but only because the results were fabricated or falsified in some way. Frackademia is problematic, no doubt about it – we need independent research to characterize costs, benefits, and risks. Industry biases masquerading as independent science undermines democratic policymaking, citizen health, and the credibility of science.
But I don’t think that RPSEA is an instance of this particular problem. Desmog Blog even notes that its mission did not call on it to study the dangers of fracking (air and water pollution, hazards, climate impacts). But if it was truly a frackademic institution, these are precisely the studies we would expect it to undertake. And we would expect to see the conclusions of those studies all aligned with the interests of the industry.
The mission statement for RPSEA reads:“RPSEA is a multi-purpose entity established to facilitate a cooperative effort to identify and develop new methods and integrated systems for exploring, producing, and transporting-to-market energy or other derivative products from ultra-deepwater and unconventional natural gas and other petroleum resources, and to ensure that small producers continue to have access to the technical and knowledge resources necessary to continue their important contribution to energy production in the U.S.”
So, it is an R&D initiative (like the 1980s Eastern Gas Shales project) designed to make us better at extracting oil and gas in an era of extreme energy.That’s the problem: it is a government-sponsored commitment to an insane energy policy dependent on increasingly toxic means of driving us into a climate disaster.
The problem is not that this group will conduct flawed science. The problem is that they will conduct perfectly accurate science that gives us the knowledge to continue our deadly fossil fuel addiction – that makes this form of energy outperform renewables on the market. We shouldn’t be concerned about the knowledge they squelch. We should be concerned about the knowledge they unleash. We don’t need more knowledge about how to scrape yet more hydrocarbons out of the Earth.
If frackademia is bad science in the name of a bad cause, this darker side of frackademia is good science in the name of a bad cause.This is “darker” because at least bad science (misconduct) can be spotted and rooted out by the scientific community. By contrast, the scientific community (qua scientists) has no problem with good science. The danger here is not that this or that individual will fall prey to money and conflicts of interest, but that entire institutions will be inherently biased such that they only pursue a narrow research agenda. Only certain questions will be asked. No one will think about what goes unasked and unexplored…as long as there is no money in it. When a whole culture is corrupted, corruption is impossible to see…at least from the inside.
This is what is really troubling about RPSEA: not the false answers to tough questions but the tough questions that go unasked.My concern, as the academy increasingly becomes tethered to such industry-government funds, is less about scientific misconduct (though that is a big worry). Rather, I am concerned that a culture of free thinking will be displaced by group-think; that the academy will be yet another den of mindless instrumentalists who do good, honest research predetermined to further their paymaster’s agenda. And these technological-giants-but-moral-midgets will not even think that the agenda itself might be an object worthy of study.