Frackademia – Corporate Siege Endures; Science’s Integrity Crumbles
Industry funding of studies and universities presents a significant challenge to academic integrity, and the latest opportunity for influence — fracking on campus land — can also endanger public health and the environment.
Back in February, Food & Water Watch blogged about the University of Tennessee’s intention to open up 8,600 acres of publicly owned land in their Cumberland Research Forest for fracking.
Despite opposition from those in and outside the academic community, the plan moved forward. On June 7, 2013, the institution called for proposals for the “lease of oil and gas interests” – officially seeking bidders for drilling and fracking.
The University of Tennessee betrayed the public and the environment by putting up a figurative picket sign on the Cumberland Research Forest, a forest that has nurtured over 60 years of environmental research.
Never before has a deal of this nature been forged. Although certain institutions have entertained industry-funded fracking research, and others have allowed companies to frack their land in order to bring royalty money to the school, this may be the first time that a university would use money from a fracking operation to fund research into the operation itself.
The University of Tennessee stands to gain millions of dollars over the 20-year lease period. And with operating costs ever increasing, such a major revenue stream for the university would be hard to resist. Unconvinced of scientific intents behind this deal, the Southern Environmental Law Center obtained correspondence between University of Tennessee colleagues that show that the institution has actively pursued fracking for financial reasons since 2002.
According to a University of Tennessee spokesperson, the research project intends to ‘determine best management practices (BMP)’ for fracking operations. BMPs are, at best, gift-wrapped economic cost-benefit analyses. Such practices place a dollar-weighted price tag on the environment and human beings, considering them as mere trade offs on a balance sheet.
Nothing will stop profit driven companies in their efforts to boost their credibility by skewing scientific objectivity through dollar-fueled influence. The company awarded the bid will pull out all the stops to ensure that their fracking operation results in findings that paint fracking, and its environmental effects, in as bright a light as possible.
Fracking the Cumberland Research Forest could turn back the clock on conservation and restoration projects spearheaded by the University itself, damage the fragile eco-system of large tracts of hardwood forests and set a new precedent in the world of frackademia: educational institutions profiting off public land with alleged ‘objective’ scientific research used to justify continued fracking operations.
Universities should be reliable sources of objective and innovative knowledge and development. Bankrolled by industry dollars, the objectivity of scientists lie in question, while experiments that toy with irreversible damage to the environment and human health remains undisputed. This deal will taint the integrity of science at the expense of the environment and public health.
To learn more about the ties between academia and the oil and gas industry, check out our fact sheet: “Frackademia” Industry Influence on Fracking Research and Academia.
John Wu is a Food & Water Watch summer water research and policy intern and a junior at The College of Wooster