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Lesson learned; UB does the right thing in pulling plug on its controversial shale gas institute

Given the level of controversy, questions and doubts surrounding the shale institute, University at Buffalo President Satish K. Tripathi did exactly the right thing in shutting it down.

As Tripathi said, in the future the university needs to clarify its policies for accepting research funding to avoid potential conflicts of interest. That pretty much sums up the problem, but it has been a long and arduous several months since the university's Shale Resources and Society Institute hit the headlines.

The university found itself in an uncomfortable position, embroiled in the controversy over the natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

The drilling pumps water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale formations holding natural gas. That fractures the shale and releases the gas.

In May, the institute released a report that claimed the procedure has become safer thanks to greater state oversight and improved industry practices.

Fracking opponents immediately attacked the report's conclusions and questioned the ties key players in the institute had to the oil and natural gas industry.

John P. Martin, the institute's director from Saratoga Springs, does consulting and public relations work for the energy industry. The report's lead author, University of Wyoming professor Timothy J. Considine, has conducted other research with funding from the drilling industry.

These are not the resumes to look for in staffing an institute with the goal of producing objective, well-researched and thoughtful analysis. Concerns about academic integrity, brought on by accusations of sloppiness, plagiary and poor peer review, cast a shadow over UB.

The situation went from bad to worse amid questions and accusations of industry funding. Finally, the board of trustees for the State University of New York wanted answers. The university provided a report in September, but has now wisely shut the institute down before the SUNY board could take any action on the matter.

If the university, as Tripathi said, lacks the faculty with the background in shale gas production, then it clearly should not have become involved with this institute. UB has learned a lesson, and will make sure rigorous standards are met while the university continues to conduct important research on energy and environmental issues.