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University at Buffalo to Close Shale Institute

The University at Buffalo (UB) will close its Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI), which during its seven-month life issued a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) study that was the target of criticism from several areas, including some UB staff, university President Satish Tripathi said last week.

"Research of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work," Tripathi said in a letter posted on the UB website.

The decision to close SRSI follows an internal assessment of the institute by Tripathi, Provost Charles Zukoski and E. Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, according to UB, and comes just weeks after Tripathi had issued a report defending the institute's practices.

In his letter, Tripathi wrote that "while UB's policies that govern disclosure of significant financial interests and sources of support are strong and consistent with federal guidelines, these policies are in need of further clarification and because of this lack of clarity were inconsistently applied." Actual and perceived conflicts between sources of research funding and expectations of independence when reporting research results "impacted the appearance of independence and integrity of the institute's research." The university has established a committee with participation of the faculty senate to strengthen policies in those areas, he said.

The internal assessment concluded that SRSI lacked "sufficient faculty presence in fields associated with energy production from shale for the institute to meet its stated mission," according to Tripathi.

A study of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which SRSI released in May, concluded that fracking is becoming safer in the state's Marcellus Shale, thanks at least in part to the state's regulation of the practice (see NGI, May 21). The results suggested that Pennsylvania's regulatory approach has been effective at maintaining a low probability of serious environmental events and in reducing the frequency of environmental violations, the researchers said.

In the days following the study's initial release, SRSI issued a an editor's note clarifying that it had not been "peer-reviewed," as it was originally described, though drafts of the report "were reviewed by several individuals with expertise in related areas, who provided comments to the authors" (see NGI, May 28).

The report contained "significant errors and distortions" that undermine its conclusions, according to an analysis released by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a nonprofit research organization based in Buffalo, NY (see NGI, June 4). Data in the report actually showed that environmental risks increased between 2008 and 2011, according to PAI. And the report's "pro-industry spin" was due to the "strong industry ties" of some of its authors and reviewers, PAI said.

After the report was released, about 20 professors and students formed the University at Buffalo Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research to call for a university inquiry of SRSI.

The SRSI was formed in April to conduct and disseminate research to guide policymakers on issues relating to fracking and the development of energy resources and to educate students and the public. In June UB, which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, said it would not change SRSI operations, despite a controversy over an SRSI fracking study that threatened to overshadow its conclusions.

In September UB was asked by the SUNY Board of Trustees to clarify the circumstances surrounding SRSI's creation and the writing of the institute's report, "including the involvement of the natural gas companies..." In a 162-page response issued Sept. 27, Tripathi said there had been "significant public misinformation and misunderstanding" since the publication of SRSI's fracking report. The university's College of Arts and Sciences was the sole funding source for SRSI, and "there has been no industry funding" of the institute, he said. Standard academic procedures were followed in the SRSI report, according to Tripathi, who deflected allegations of conflicts of interest at the institute.

"The fact that the co-authors of the May 15 SRSI report have known industrial experience, having worked in the field for many years, in no way invalidates the results of the research reported in the May 15 SRSI report," according to UB's response to the SUNY Board of Trustees. "Practices of disclosing potential conflicts vary across disciplines. The authors of the SRSI report follow common practice in engineering and the physical sciences."

The closing of SRSI does not mean UB's energy and shale research will end, Tripathi said Nov. 19.

"To leverage our university's considerable faculty expertise in the area of energy and the environment and to address these issues with appropriate breadth and complexity, UB will establish a comprehensive program of scholarship and education that addresses issues in this broadly defined area of research," he said. The university plans to create "a faculty-driven process that provides appropriate scope and scale for UB's scholarship in energy and environmental sciences," he said.

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