Published September 12, 2012
Dear University Community,
As a major research university, UB is one of the few places in our society where honest and open debates about any topic, including controversial subjects, can occur. As Provost, one of my most important duties is to protect the academic freedom of all of our faculty to explore important topics irrespective of whether or not they are considered controversial.
Heightened sensitivities have emerged on management of conflict of interest giving rise to legitimate concerns regarding how faculty research is supported, conducted and reported. As an example, last month, the US Public Health Service (PHS) issued new conflict guidelines for PHS-funded university research, which UB has adopted. This action takes place amidst a growing conversation in the academic community nationally regarding the role of industry funding to support university research.
It is right and proper for UB faculty to seek and the University to accept private sector funding in support of scholarly activities. To ensure transparency and adherence to rigorous standards of academic integrity, UB Investigators are required by university policy to disclose annually conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment. If the conflicts are determined to be unmanageable, UB will not accept the funding.
Research involving shale gas is an excellent example of a controversial, important and timely topic. Almost immediately upon my arrival at UB, I became aware of concerns about the university’s involvement in shale gas research. I have been following the communications around the Shale Research and Society Institute (SRSI) carefully. I have spent time learning about the origins of SRSI, reading its first report, and reviewing specific UB policies related to the establishment of UB centers and institutes and share with you the following:
The concept of SRSI was created by faculty from the Department of Geology. Dean E. Bruce Pitman established SRSI to provide objective scientific research and informed analysis of policies, practices and the science related to shale gas and hydraulic fracturing.
The controversy that has arisen over the first report of SRSI exposes sensitivities we have to the integrity of research conducted at UB. The result cannot be that we avoid undertaking and discussing topics that are current and where there is polarization of opinion. Instead, we must develop policies and practices in which we have confidence that, when followed, assure us that scholarship is undertaken without inappropriate conflicts influencing the results.
The University neither dictates the conclusions drawn by faculty from their research nor reviews faculty research before it is published. Standards of academic conduct are monitored within our policies related to research integrity and conflict of interest and commitment. When allegations of research misconduct are made, UB has robust practices for responding to such allegations.
As the world changes, we are continuously exposed to complex issues and events that challenge our policies and practices. With that in mind, I have asked Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Alexander Cartwright and Faculty Senate Chair, Ezra Zubrow to establish a joint committee to review university policies and practices related to research, scholarship and publication practices across the disciplines, with the goal of offering recommendations to develop and strengthen our policies in these areas. The Faculty Senate is the appropriate place for such a policy debate to occur and I am confident that, with this approach, any modifications to existing policies will be made in a thoughtful and careful manner.
We attract and retain the world-class scholars of UB by sustaining extraordinary standards of excellence. I look forward to working with Vice President Cartwright, Faculty Senate Chair Zubrow and all UB faculty to ensure our principles and policies remain anchored in our commitment to intellectual honesty and academic excellence.
Charles F. Zukoski
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs