This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Published: Oct. 25, 2012

Study compromises research integrity

To the editor:

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.

David Kowalski
Professor Emeritus
Cellular & Molecular Biology Program
Roswell Park Graduate Division

Take care with power-assisted doors

To the editor:

Major rehabilitation around UB has led to greater handicapped accessibility. Power-assisted doors were, and are being, installed in many places. They are subject to abuse, however. Please consider the following points:

  • Power-assisted doors are not a convenience; they are a necessity for many. When they do not work, it may be impossible for some members of the UB community to proceed through the door without assistance. Needing assistance to pass through a door robs them of their sense of independence.
  • Like all mechanical devices, power-assisted doors fail eventually, largely as a result of prolonged use. Unnecessary use hastens their failure. Heating and air-conditioning costs rise. These increases impact on the tuition and fees students pay.
  • It is inconsiderate to use dirty shoes or cane/crutch tips to activate a power-assisted door that someone else will activate with a hand.
  • UB needs to foster a culture of respect for facilities in place to enable independence by those who are mobility impaired.

With these factors in mind, think carefully when you come to a power-assisted door. Use your own strength unless essential not to do so.

Claude Welch
SUNY Distinguished Service Professor
Department of Political Science

Peter A. Rittner
assistant dean for educational technology
College of Arts and Sciences

Reader Comments

Daniel J. Schweitzer says:

Again, what I don't understand is why the administration seems to go to such lengths to appear to have not been in error. Dr. Kowalski's letter makes clear what I've always been taught is the foundation of scientific research: it's about finding the truth, not being right. Perhaps the SRSI ought to take a page out of his book.

Posted by Daniel J. Schweitzer, Student, 10/26/12

Theresa Warburton says:

Thank you for this response from the 'relevant scientific community', Dr. Kowalski. It's clear that what the administration means by 'relevant' is 'supports our findings, regardless of what they actually are.'

As a student and former instructor in the College of Arts and Sciences in a department that, similar to many others, has consistently been told we can't get any of the necessary resources (such as TA lines, new faculty, even business cards for new PhDs going on the job market!) because there is 'no money'. I guess now we know why there is 'no money'.

Additionally, this is an issue that has consequences and ramifications for people all over New York State -- UB has a responsibility to act in the best interest of the public community and this report demonstrates that they are not!

Posted by Theresa Warburton, PhD Candidate, 10/26/12

Josh Cerretti says:

Thank you, Dr Kowalski, for your very clear rendering of these issues! The UB administration has a lot to answer for: SRSI appears bad for local communities and even worse for the reputation of our university.

Posted by Josh Cerretti, Grad Student in Transnational Studies, 10/25/12

Benjamin Nelson says:

Prof. Kowalski's concerns about the poor quality and questionable motives of the May 2012 UB Shale Resources & Society Institute report are well-founded.

His brief analysis in this letter demonstrates a good-faith critical engagement with the actual content of that document; UB officials' dismissals of its widespread criticism do not. Indeed, they appear to consider substantive intellectual argument as beneath them.

Readers should know that the failings of the SRSI report are catalogued at length in "The UB Shale Play: Distorting the Facts About Fracking," a publication of local nonprofit research organization the Public Accountability Initiative, which I co-authored. That document is available at

Posted by Benjamin Nelson, UB Law School Class of 2015; research analyst, Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), 10/25/12

Jim Holstun says:

Thanks to Professor Kowalski for taking the time to present a clear argument underlining the weaknesses of the SRSI report, and showing exactly what it means to be part of the "relevant scientific community": this comes not from saying "I'm part of the relevant scientific community, and you aren't!" It comes from speaking and writing clearly and rationally, with evidence. And really, no matter what community you're from, a change from .59 to .80 "major incidents" per well never constitutes a "decrease." It's sad to think that this point even needs to be made: again, and again, and again

Posted by Jim Holstun, Professor of English, 10/25/12