University research controversy exposes the perils of industry influence

How close should academics let industry get to fracking research?


In September, documents obtained by a Boulder publication found troubling ties between university research and the fracking industry. The University of Colorado Leeds Business School completed a number of studies funded by industry groups that concluded that if policy inhibited oil and gas production, it would have a negative impact on the state’s economy.

The controversy centers around three reports: one completed for the American Petroleum Institute, and two commissioned on behalf of a partnership that included the Common Sense Policy Roundtable — a policy research association that’s become known as a pro-fracking industry front group. The reports concluded that fracking has a positive impact on Colorado’s economy, and they were published between March and September 2014, during a period of political grappling over a proposed ballot initiative that would have allowed communities to ban hydraulic fracturing. That initiative did not make it to the November ballot, but the timing and conclusions of the reports raised the suspicions of the Boulder Weekly and Greenpeace.

The Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado-Boulder has been at the center of allegations of pro-fracking industry ties from the Boulder Weekly and Greenpeace.
Flickr user: Sushant Jadhav

According to documents and emails obtained by the two organizations, the researcher in charge of the studies, Brian Lewandowski, associate director of the Leeds School of Business research division, corresponded with his clients throughout the process and allowed them to have at least some degree of control over the release and process of the research. The correspondence also suggests the Leeds School of Business coordinated a public campaign with their clients to promote the fracking industry.

Industry-funded research presents a tough paradox for universities. In general, it’s not unusual for industries like oil and gas to pick up the tab for some studies and research. Without that outside funding, many of the studies wouldn’t otherwise get done. But Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors who has written extensively on “frackedemia,” says “the oil and gas industry has become much more interested in adding a university brand to its claim.” The transparency of the Leeds studies was inadequate, Nelson says, and the university may need to reform its disclosure policies: “This is an example of complete collusion between the industry and academy that completely eliminates any sense of a university doing independent research. Unless the University of Colorado has a really lousy policy that basically says, ‘there ain’t no such thing as a conflict of interest,’ this is egregious."

The Leeds school’s current entanglement is indicative of a broader problem in academia. In 2010, the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit research organization, released a report that identified more than 50 contributions from energy companies to universities from $1 million to $500 million from 2000 through 2010. That sort of funding “can have a powerful distorting influence on the quality, topics, and credibility of academic research when it is not properly managed,” the report stated. The University of Texas, for example, withdrew a fracking study and strengthened its conflict of interest policies after the research erupted in controversy in 2012. “There are faculty members that would ordinarily be doing fracking research at this point who don’t want to go anywhere near it because they feel it’s become so suspect that publishing on that subject could put the image of their integrity at risk,” Nelson says. “That's very dangerous because we need fracking research that's reliable.”

Similarly, the allegations raised by the Boulder Weekly have created a public perception problem for the Leeds studies. Although the researchers disclosed their funding sources, what the business school left out — whether they did so purposefully or not — was the Common Sense Policy Roundtable’s financial ties to the fracking industry. Lewandowski also did not disclose funding information when presenting one of his studies at the Energy and Environment Symposium. Joe Rosse, University of Colorado associate vice chancellor for research integrity and compliance, says a preliminary review didn’t find any indication that results were manipulated, though. “At the moment, it is not apparent that an investigation is called for,” Rosse said in an email. “There is also no basis for believing there is any violation of university conflict of interest policies.”

Documents obtained in the Bouder Weekly’s investigation indicate that the American Petroleum Institute and the Common Sense Policy Roundtable were allowed to review the proposal and research findings before release. “These are clients paying us to complete the study,” Lewandowski says. "We do, as a courtesy, allow them to read the report and provide comments or feedback." Emails show Kristin Strohm, managing partner of the Starboard Group, a conservative public relations firm that works for pro-fracking interests, submitted “suggested changes” numerous times.

According to university policies, clients can’t alter research findings or data, and there’s no evidence that clients did so in the Leeds reports. But emails indicate Strohm called the shots about when the study would be released. Lewandowski says there was no coordination, just correspondence that adhered to their typical process. A request to Strohm for comment was not answered in time for publication.

Emails also show that industry interests apparently had a heavy hand in preparing media-ready quotes for researchers. In October 2014, Zachary Cikanek, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, sent an email to Lewandowski suggesting a quote for an API press release promoting the 2014 fracking ban study. The quote eventually used in the release was strikingly similar to what the API suggested, with minor edits in word choice. Lewandowski says the quote originated from a phone call presenting the findings, not from the API. Yet, "if the quotes are being prepared and used by the sponsor as part of their public relations efforts, the university does not have control over that,” Rosse says. A request for comment from API was not answered in time for the deadline. 

An email from the American Petroleum Institute indicated that the Leeds School of Business worked closely to coordinate press releases to promote economic impact studies on fracking.

So far, no one is questioning the veracity of the Leeds Business School research. John Loomis, Colorado State University professor of agricultural and resource economics, says the research was sound but generous; it cast a wide net when considering overall economic benefits and employment in the hydraulic fracturing industry. “We review all of their studies and I’d say about three-quarters of it is very useful information,” Loomis says, “but (our department) would have drawn the line in a different place.”

This controversy raises larger questions about public perception of credibility of other University of Colorado fracking studies and about academia and industry collaboration broadly. Even projects with non-partisan funding can be jeopardized by a growing public mistrust. Perhaps the most vulnerable to changes in public perception in the wake of this recent controversy is the Air Water Gas project, a $12 million CU study funded by the National Science Foundation that brings together nearly 30 researchers from nine institutions to study wide-ranging trade-offs in natural gas development. “Let’s just say we're really glad we got our funding from the National Science Foundation,” says Joseph Ryan, the project’s director. “We have the opportunity to go about our work without any questions attached to who is funding it.”

Nelson, who wrote recommendations for universities involved in such collaborations, says industry-funded research is far more likely to reach pro-industry conclusions than peer-reviewed studies. “The worst thing that a society learns from situations like this is that universities are not trustworthy,” Nelson says. “Incorrect narratives can take decades to correct.”

The University of Colorado Boulder submitted a letter to High Country News in response to this article. 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets 

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