Provost's Prepared Remarks to Faculty Senate on the Shale Resources and Society Institute

Presented to the General Membership of the Faculty Senate on October 2, 2012 This content is archived.

There has been significant misinformation expressed by various sources which has led to many questions surrounding the establishment of the Shale Resources and Society Institute, or, more simply, the Shale Institute. My goal this afternoon is to clarify the facts and correct any misunderstanding that may exist.

UB is a major, public research institution.  Part of our mission is to bring the benefits of our research, scholarship and other creative endeavors to the larger society. There are many routes enabling larger society to benefit. One of these is to partner with the private sector to understand issues associated with new technologies.

Research universities like UB generally receive external funding from one of three sources:

  • Competitive (state and federal grants)
  • Philanthropic
  • Corporate/industry support

Corporate and industry support is a common and essential source of university funding of research conducted by investigators across the disciplines, at universities around the world and enables education, ensures that research is at the cutting edge, and focuses attention on timely issues.  As reported by the National Science Foundation in 2009 (the most recent year that data is published), national university research expenditures funded by industry exceeded $3 billion.

Following national best practice, UB has established policies that govern disclosure of significant financial interests and sources of support that could impact the independence and integrity of the scholarship and research undertaken by faculty. To ensure transparency and adherence to rigorous standards of academic integrity, we focus on identifying and managing potential conflicts of interest.  If the conflicts are determined to be unmanageable, UB will not accept the funding.

Research centers and institutes provide an important mechanism for innovation that keeps the university in the forefront as a research and scholarly institution.  Centers and institutes are often formed in response to a broader societal issue or concern.  UB has more than 150 such research centers and institutes, many of which are funded by state and federal agencies, individuals, philanthropies and industries. 

Some of the major research programs at UB that receive corporate and/or industry support to advance their research include the:

  • Humanities Institute (with support from Microsoft Corporation)
  • Center for Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR) (with support from the US Postal Service and Lockheed Martin)
  • Clinical and Translational Research Center (CTRC) (with support from  Merck, Boston Scientific etc.)
  • Toshiba Research Stroke Center (with support from Toshiba and others)

There are many more examples.

As with all research at UB, regardless of the source of funding, it is not the role of the university nor of the funding source to dictate the conclusions drawn by faculty investigators. This core principle is critical to the preservation of academic freedom.

Faculty sometimes undertake research in areas that are the subject of significant public debate, which is the case with regard to the Shale Institute. These activities are supported on the basis of academic freedom and as an essential part of the research mission of our university.

The concept of the Shale Institute originated with faculty from UB’s Department of Geology. As the national conversation on shale resources and their relevance has intensified, members of UB’s faculty have considered it imperative to include topics on shale, hydraulic fracturing, and their societal impact in their teaching and research, examining this issue from all sides of the debate. 

The Shale Institute was established by Dean Bruce Pitman earlier this year, following several years of faculty discussion dating back to 2007. As part of its public service mission, in the Spring of 2011, the Geology Department held a series of lectures sponsored with $12,900 in funding from various  industry sources. These funds financed only the Department’s lecture series and did not support the Shale Institute, which had not yet been formed.

Questions have been raised regarding what role industry played in the selection of the director and co-director of the Shale Institute. The dean of the college managed the process that resulted in the appointment of the Institute’s director, Dr. John Martin, and co-director, Dr. Robert Jacobi. 

Dean Pitman’s selection process included a canvassing of UB faculty for potential candidates, discussion with advisory board members from the Department of Geology (some of whom have oil and gas corporate experience) and conversations with faculty at other institutions of higher learning. 

Both Dr. Martin and Dr. Jacobi – a longtime, full professor of Geology at UB – were ultimately selected by the dean based on their bodies of work and peer recommendations.

Another question which has been raised relates to how the Institute is funded. The Shale Institute has been funded completely by the College of Arts and Sciences, using discretionary funds available to them. 

However, I wish to emphasize  that while the Shale Institute has not  received any industry funding to date, they are expected and it is desirable for them to generate support for their research and scholarship through competitive grants, philanthropy and from the industry. This, too, is consistent with UB’s policies and practices.

The Institute released its first report in May of 2012, entitled, “Environmental  Impacts During Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies.”  The report was authored by Dr. Martin and three faculty members from  other universities. The report reviewed the impact of regulations on the incidence of environmental policy violation. The report contained several errors, which were immediately corrected by the authors. 

A press release associated with the report stated that it was “peer- reviewed”.  The report followed an open peer-review method; five reviewers publicly identified in the published report had been asked for comment prior  to publication. I note that when publications are submitted to journals, an anonymous peer-review process is often used. As this report was not submitted to a journal, a different form of peer-review was followed.  As a note of clarification, parts of the report have been submitted to peer-reviewed journals and are currently undergoing review.

It’s important to note that no concerns regarding the report have been raised by the relevant scientific community.

Instead, criticism began to surface when activists began questioning various issues related to the Institute’s founding, funding and the appointment of the director and the relationship between industry and the Institute. 

A thorough review by the university has confirmed that no sponsored funding was received by UB for Director John Martin’s work on the report. The director and-co-director of the Shale Institute are in compliance with UB disclosure and commitment policies. 

Key points from my perspective:

This issue arose as I arrived at UB. My position is not that of a defender or detractor of shale fracking. Ensuring the integrity of all research conducted at the university remains a priority of paramount importance for UB and for me. My role is to ensure that our policies and practices protect academic freedom across the disciplines, to ensure our research is excellent and that it is conducted with high ethical standards.

Enabling our faculty to explore and publish research on any topic—including controversial ones—is essential to sustaining a campus environment characterized by scholarly integrity, rigor, and informed debate.

These are core principles on which our commitment to academic excellence and integrity is based. 

As a university, we’re continuously exposed to complex issues and events that challenge our policies and practices. With that in mind, I’ve asked Senate Chair Ezra Zubrow and Vice President Alexander Cartwright to establish a joint committee to provide advice on 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. As a university, it’s important that we continuously review our policies and practices. Our faculty body is the appropriate place for such a policy debate to occur. I’m confident that, with this approach, any modifications to existing policies will be made in a thoughtful and careful manner.

I would be happy to take any questions from the Senate at this time.