October 9, 2012

Fracking: There Is No Objective Role

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On Sept. 24, President Skorton and Glenn Altschuler, Vice President of University Relations co-authored Forbes article entitled, “Fracking: A Role for Universities.” In this piece, the authors insist that hydraulic fracturing has swept the nation and globe, and is imminent in New York. They argue that “we cannot put this genie back in the bottle,” the most we can do is ensure that we do our homework and that all necessary precautions are taken. In order to avoid “public perceptions that lobbyists will influence policies and that the foxes are guarding the henhouse,” Skorton and Altschuler argue that government and industry should turn to universities (READ: Cornell), and pay them to conduct unbiased research. Universities, they say, have “a commitment to and reputation for rigor and objectivity in research.” As evidence for their argument, they vaguely refer to two Cornell studies that reached opposite conclusions concerning the relative impacts of fracking on climate change. They fail to mention, as one commentator pointed out, that the study conducted by Robert Howarth, which found that methane leaks from fracking would have a larger impact on climate change than burning coal, was consistent with EPA estimates for methane emissions and the other was not.

In their article, Skorton and Altschuler refer to a Washington Post column entitled “Fracking is too important to foul up” by another high-power duo, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and George P. Mitchell, “philanthropist and hydrofracking pioneer.” The Cornell tag team seems to have drawn its inspiration from Bloomberg and Mitchell’s argument, which endorses fracking but recognizes that there are bases to cover and money to be made first. Skorton and Altschuler highlight the following statement from the Bloomberg-Mitchell piece, “each of our foundations will support organizations that seek to work with states and industries to develop common-sense regulations that will protect the environment — and ensure that the industry can thrive.” Isn’t part of the research process meant to determine whether or not those two things can happen simultaneously? What if “objective” university research reveals that protecting the environment and fracking our Earth are mutually exclusive? It seems that the results of the hypothetical objective research have already been decided.

Aside from the assumption that fracking is here to stay, perhaps the most disturbing assertion in the article was that universities produce thorough, “objective” research. How then, could the two Cornell fracking-climate studies yield opposing results? While I’m not a scientist and do not pretend to be, I would venture to guess that at some point in each study, different decisions were made on what variables to use and how to measure them. And that’s where things get messy. Science is never unbiased; it is a study of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation. However, we cannot pretend that the observer is without certain predispositions or that experiments can be conducted without making critical decisions along the way, which are, of course, informed by the biases we all hold. We must ask ourselves, then, how would those critical choices vary if the science, and scientists, were industry-funded?

We can look to history to help illustrate the relationship between university research, government and industry. Research for the Manhattan Project, which ended in the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, began at a few universities, primarily Columbia, University of Chicago and UC Berkeley. Additionally, in the 1970’s, US officials in Chile conspired with Theodore Schultz, Chair of the Economics Department at University of Chicago, to send the best and brightest minds of Chile to the University of Chicago to study liberal economics. More specifically, these men who came to be known as “The Chicago Boys,” were meant to derail the outstanding progress of developmentalism in Chile, which was considered a threat to American-style capitalism. After the CIA-assisted coup of ’73, the Chicago School’s ideas became the basis for Pinochet’s economic policy and essential to maintaining his repressive regime.

Albert Einstein did not drop the bomb and Milton Freidman did not orchestrate mass killings in Chile, but these are just two examples of how university work can be used, (mis)guided and manipulated by government and special interests to detrimental ends. Even if the science is good, the math is exactly right and we come as close as we can to objective study, we must remember that research doesn’t happen in a vacuum, there are always consequences.

But then we come back to that word, “objective.” A more recent, perhaps more relevant example of university-industrial-government relations can be found in Jennifer Washburn’s 2010 report, “Big Oil Goes to College: An Analysis of 10 Research Collaboration Contracts between Leading Energy Companies and Major U.S. Universities.” With the economy as it is, and the future of government-issued energy research subsidies clouded by uncertainty in the face of the election, universities are left to turn to the private sector for funding. The report highlights some concerning trends in research contracts; to name a few: None of the research contracts in the study required an impartial peer review process, energy companies controlled research proposal selection and in most cases, Big Oil maintained “exclusive commercial rights to academic findings.” Unchecked, handpicked, privately owned research does not sound very objective to me. This is how corporate sponsorship works; there is always a give and take. What are we willing to sacrifice for a piece of the hydrofracking pie?

Skorton and Altschuler’s Forbes piece reads as a bid for funding in exchange for results that the industry — and its high-power allies — would find favorable. Do we want to be part of the justification process for a method of natural gas extraction that threatens to poison our water, clutter our country roads and contribute hugely to climate change? And if so, what’s our price?

Anna-Lisa Castle is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, and current president of KyotoNOW!. She may be reached at amc394@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semster.

Original Author: Anna-Lisa Castle