A Poisoned Well? Fracking Studies Stir Doubts
Critics of the current system say that academics who publish research that troubles the industry could be putting more than their own funding stream at risk. In the fiscal year 2010, Penn State received nearly $104 million from "industry and other" sources in research funding, according to an annual report of research activity.
"Most universities, and especially public universities right now, are under extraordinary funding pressures, and they're trying to make more money from outside sources," said Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative. "When... an issue like fracking comes along, there's an obvious source of money for studies that put a positive spin or friendly face on fracking. And that source of money is industry. Universities that are seeing their budgets get cut, and are working to raise money from the private sector, they see fracking as an opportunity."
Cary Nelson, the immediate past president of the American Association of University Professors and the co-author of a report on academic-industry partnerships, said that it is appropriate for industry to fund fracking research. But he argues that the funding should be funneled through an academic group so that researchers don't know which company it comes from. He also says that public websites should be set up by universities where funding and conflicts of interest are disclosed to the public.
Nelson believes that the fracking industry has influenced academic research in the same way that cigarette companies did in the past, "but in sped up fashion."
"It took decades for smoking research at universities to be undermined," he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency expects to issue a long-term study on whether fracking pollutes drinking water in 2014, though the effort is already mired in partisan controversy. Figures in industry and some Congressional Republicans have deemed the study unnecessary, and it's almost certain that any results that cast doubt on the safety of fracking will be fiercely contested.
For non-government researchers, studying fracking without industry support can be difficult. University of Pennsylvania Professor Trevor Penning, who is leading an effort to align major universities in a systematic fracking study, said that finding non-industry funding sources is a major challenge -- particularly at a time when groups like the National Institutes of Health are "having trouble meeting existing commitments [and thus] don't want to fund new work." He said that with Congress looking to cut domestic spending - automatic "sequester" spending cuts are set to kick in on March 1 - finding funding will only get harder.
"The issue I think we're faced with is when you start looking at how much sound science has been done that's peer-reviewed, it's actually very, very small," said Penning, whose strategy involves funding small pilot programs in hopes that that work will generate additional funding. The first study, which is nearly complete, involves reaching out to residents in northwestern Pennsylvania to ask about health problems they believe are related to fracking. Another, which is pending funding, would look at water qualities and health outcomes in fracking communities compared to communities where fracking has not taken place.