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UB staff, students urge probe of institute; Critics say school's reputation is in danger

A new institute at the University at Buffalo is damaging UB's credibility, and operations should cease until more is made public about its origins, staffing and funding, some faculty and students said Thursday.

The controversy surrounds UB's Shale Resources and Society Institute, whose April unveiling was followed up a month later with a controversial report that the form of natural gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – is safer thanks to state oversight and better industry practices.

Critics – who point out that the authors have close ties to the oil and natural gas industry – are raising concerns the institute's report is more of a public relations campaign than scholarly research.

"Attaching the University at Buffalo name to this report has damaged the university's reputation for credible scholarship," said Leslie Nickerson, a UB doctoral student, "and it raises question about the legitimacy of using public university resources in support of corporate objectives."

Nickerson is part of the newly formed UB Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research, which calls itself CLEAR. Some 20 members of the group – professors, students, alumni – gathered at the UB South Campus on Thursday and called on university administrators to suspend funding for the shale institute until more answers are provided.

"Suspension is absolutely essential until the university makes transparent the way in which [the insti[JUMP]tute] was founded, the way in which it's funded and the way in which hires were made," said UB English Professor Jim Holstun.

Sloppy errors in the report, accusations that parts were plagiarized and claims that it had been "peer reviewed" are all driving suspicions about the institute.

Critics want a public forum held so people can raise their concerns. They also want to know if money from the oil and gas industry helps fund the institute.

"All four of the authors have deep institutional and financial connections to the oil and gas industries. It should have been in the report," Holstun said. "This is another example of the lack of transparency that's really wrecking this project and damaging the university."

The institute's director, John P. Martin – who is located in Saratoga Springs and does consulting and public relations work for the energy industry – declined a request for an interview through a UB spokesperson.

UB, however, reiterated that its College of Arts and Science started the institute with $40,000 of its own money to provide some academic understanding to the heated debate over fracking.

The drilling technique – which uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals to blast open pores within the shale through which to extract the natural gas – has been raising environmental concerns about air pollution and ground water contamination.

UB officials said open meetings were held for faculty to learn about the institute. And while the university stopped short of calling a public forum about the institute, it said there will be future opportunities for faculty to collaborate.

The university issued a statement saying: "UB has no plans to alter or suspend the operations of the institute."

The safety of fracking is a good topic for independent university research, said Martha McCluskey, a UB law professor. But it also raises questions about the influence of corporate money in academia, which is a growing concern, she said.

And even the appearance of such dependence compromises a university's integrity, said Stephen C. Halpern, a UB political science professor.

"It seems to me they [UB] owe the university community and the citizens of the state – who are in the middle of a very serious discussion about the safety of fracking – answers to some of these questions," Halpern said.