Industry's vital fuel for academic engine

October 10, 2013

In response to Cary Nelson’s article “Beware: integrity at risk” (19 September): it is academia’s role to carry out impartial and independent research and analysis that provides governments, business and the public with scientifically based information on fracking.

Academics are faced with a dilemma, though. Undertaking detailed and investigative research costs time and money, leading to the question of who pays. Is it the taxpayer through the research councils, businesses or the European Union? Success rates for acquiring funding from European or UK research council sources can be as low as 5 per cent, so reliance on such sources could mean that the work is not conducted at all.

On the other hand, one could also argue that in these times of austerity, the taxpayer, through the UK research councils, the Department of Energy and Climate Change or the Environment Agency, should not be funding such research.

Governments recognise that scientific investigation is necessary for informed policy decisions. Yet being financially restricted as they currently are, they are keen to encourage businesses to support academia in undertaking vital investigations.

Measures can and should be put in place to protect the integrity of the research, such as writing into the contracts signed by universities stipulations that funders cannot interfere in the results. Research programmes should be vetted by university ethics committees composed of senior academics and university policy advisers.

However, the most critical question of all is not who funds the research, but who frames it. For the work to truly represent the public interest, it is the public and other stakeholders who must get to decide what the key research questions are. In the Researching Fracking in Europe (ReFINE) consortium, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and three oil and gas companies, topics for investigation are set and agreed by an independent science board: the funders have no role in these decisions and cannot influence the results.

The Durham Energy Institute at Durham University has a track record of research independence that speaks for itself. In the period 2007-10, we used our knowledge and experience of the oil and gas industry to publish a series of papers investigating the cause of the hugely damaging Lusi mud volcano in Indonesia, which erupted in 2006. This volcano caused 13 fatalities and led to 40,000 people losing their homes. Lapindo Brantas, an operating company drilling for gas in the area, blamed it on an earthquake, but our research showed that it was almost certainly caused by the drilling and a blowout. The balanced expert opinion and knowledge of the industry was hugely important in accurately assessing the causes of the eruption. The company, while never admitting liability, did pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to those who had been displaced.

Harnessing academic research while utilising industry funding enables scientists to enhance our understanding of the critical issues, which is needed to shape policies and decisions that affect us all. That is why it is critical to ensure that such funding remains a viable option for academics, rather than creating a barrier between academia and industrial practitioners.

Richard Davies
Project lead for ReFINE
Durham University


I think the kind of cosy government/academia relationship discussed in “Beware: integrity at risk” is absolutely central to today’s energy science and national policies. It’s not about tenure - it is much more serious than that. The universities are fundamentally corrupted.

The only good thing is that Times Higher Education at least is prepared to talk about it!

Martin Cohen

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