What do you call a report that makes major math mistakes, pulls language directly from other publications without citation, and fails to disclose the researchers’ financial conflicts of interest?
In the fight over fracking, it might just be called “peer-reviewed” science.
The most recent example of such sketchy research comes from the University of Buffalo, which released a report [PDF] this month concluding that fracking is getting safer and pointing for proof to Pennsylvania, ground zero for drilling.
The problem isn’t just that the study itself is misleading and riddled with errors (which it is). It’s that in their efforts to win public favor, the fracking industry increasingly hides behind academia to circulate misinformation — and the University of Buffalo is the latest cover.
Let’s deconstruct: The study’s key claim is that the rate of major environmental violations in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale declined from 2008 to 2011. But a look at the study’s data shows that, using the researchers’ own methodology, the rate of major environmental accidents actually increased by more than 30 percent.
Large chunks of the report appear to be lifted verbatim from a document previously published by three of the report’s four authors for a conservative think tank called the Manhattan Institute. This matters because the university study fails to cite the think tank. In this case, it’s very relevant: The Manhattan Institute receives financial support from oil and gas companies heavily invested in fracking, like ExxonMobil. Instead, the study released this month is stamped only with the University of Buffalo’s academic imprimatur.
These problems and more are discussed in a detailed assessment by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), a nonprofit research and educational organization focused on corporate and government accountability. It highlights the worsening problem of universities getting into bed with industries and compromising research in the process.
The University of Buffalo report leaves out other key information — like the fact that when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) took office in 2011, his new top environmental regulator sent around a memo telling inspectors that they had to get approval from political appointees before issuing violations to Marcellus drillers. That order was retracted after it leaked to the press, but by that time the message to state workers was pretty clear.
The Buffalo report also sidelines entire categories of violations as “administrative” rather than “environmental” — often without clear information about the nature of the offense.
Some media outlets failed to do their homework and too quickly ran with the report. Forbes, for example, went with: “Fracking Safety Improves Dramatically Says Independent Study.”
Press people at the University of Buffalo pitched the report extensively as a rare good-news opportunity for the controversy-riddled fracking issue. The lack of regulation of fracking in places — quite especially in Pennsylvania — has been extensively documented.
The University of Buffalo’s study offered an alternate reality.
It’s worth giving some context on Considine. As the folks at PAI point out, both Considine and fellow report author Robert Watson also wrote a controversial 2009 report [PDF] issued under the auspices of Penn State but funded by the natural gas industry group known as the Marcellus Shale Committee.
Penn State retracted the initial version of the report because it did not disclose its funding source and “may well have crossed the line from policy analysis to policy advocacy,” according to the school’s dean of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Other authors and reviewers of the report from Buffalo have undisclosed ties to industry, which are detailed in the review by PAI.
The University of Buffalo is partly to blame for not vetting its own study a bit better. In fact, the university may have been a bit too eager to publicize the report. The press release originally described the study as “peer-reviewed,” a term usually reserved for research meticulously reviewed by experts before publication in an academic journal. But it turned out that the report was only circulated for comment to five people, most of whom have industry ties — and the lone environmentalist among the bunch has distanced himself from its findings, according to PAI.
“This description may have given readers an incorrect impression,” the website now notes in a retraction.
Unfortunately, when academia allows the media to run with “incorrect impressions,” including ones created by seriously flawed data, the damage may already be done.