Academic freedom of expression denied by corporate lobbying

By David Smythe

Academic freedom of expression denied by corporate lobbying

By David Smythe

My technical opposition to fracking conflicts with corporate research funding at Glasgow University, which has now silenced me by cutting off my rightful research links.

Funded
on 18th August 2016
£14,121
pledged by 362 people

My technical opposition to fracking conflicts with corporate research funding at Glasgow University, which has now silenced me by cutting off my rightful research links.

Progress to date

Oct. 14, 2016

My solicitor Ziqyia Riaz has now written to the University, in a final attempt to settle before court action, as follows:

My client is prepared to resolve matters on the following basis:

1. That his university email address and access to this be reinstated immediately,
2. That access to the library and other facilities, both physically and electronically, be reinstated immediately,
3. That his GUID...

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Academic freedom of expression abruptly terminated

In my research I depend completely upon having access to the online academic database via a link to the University of Glasgow, my former employer. Upon retirement in 1998 I was made Emeritus Professor of Geophysics and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Both are for life; as a member of the College of Science and Engineering I am entitled to access the library and other facilities, both remotely and by physical entry.

After retirement I did some part-time consulting for the oil industry, but I have mainly applied my time and expertise to difficult technical issues of wide social interest, including the disposal of nuclear waste, medical ultrasound imaging, and how to measure serious civil nuclear accidents, such as Fukushima, in an objective way.

On 30 January 2016 my university online access was suddenly terminated, without warning or explanation, after 17 years of trouble-free access. The fundamental issue at stake here is freedom of academic expression: here’s why.

Fracking - the immediate issue

In 2014 I started to publish technical information critical of the growing UK fracking industry. Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University disagrees with my views on fracking; he and many other UK earth science academics depend upon industry and government for research grants. I have written many reports for local objectors’ groups, forensically dissecting the fossil fuel industry’s planning applications. The companies that I have criticised technically include Cuadrilla Resources, Dart Energy, IGas, and Celtique Energie. The common theme in my work is the risk of contamination of groundwater resources due to the complex faulted geology of the UK. This theme followed on naturally from my researches in West Cumbria, where extensive faulting is the chief reason why a nuclear waste repository should never be sited there.

On 27 January this year I published online an academic paper about fracking, giving my affiliation as Glasgow University, as I am supposed to do when publishing such papers.Three days later my university email address and access to the library system were terminated. Internal emails I obtained recently show that the termination was directly linked to the publication of my research article. No proper procedures were followed at to arrive at the termination decision. The University claims that the termination was part of a “routine review”. This is untrue.

Corporate influence on universities– the wider issue

Glasgow University has been trying to develop close links with Cuadrilla Resources Ltd, the company in the vanguard of UK fracking for oil and gas. Emails show that two Cuadrilla staff even flew to Glasgow for talks in June 2015. Cuadrilla may also have been behind the request from Lancashire County Council to Paul Younger to review my detailed technical submissions to the council planning department. Younger had earlier written that their “Various industrial research partners” wanted the university to distance itself from my views. My own view on corporate influence was expressed to the university in 2014:

I believe that it is a correct assumption by the media that whenever an academic is speaking or writing, then he or she is doing so in a personal capacity. This is a core value of academic freedom in practice; it is different from, say, a company CEO or a government minister, where the assumption is that they are representing a group or corporate interest. Furthermore, the use of academic titles such as Doctor or Professor rightly endows the holder with some authority (in the appropriate field), and this fact is also correctly perceived by the media.

Why this affects you

You, the public, have to depend on scientific experts for discussion and evaluation of many complex issues. It was once true that an academic speaking on a subject within his or her expertise could be relied upon to be free of outside influence. But this is no longer the case in the earth sciences, where the fossil fuel industry has developed a pervasive and often malign influence on how the researchers that they fund behave. So pervasive is this influence that some researchers, even when funded almost entirely by the industry, still regard themselves as ‘independent’.

The next steps

We need to demonstrate that Glasgow University cannot suppress views simply because certain of their current employees happen to disagree with these views. I am a lifelong member of the College, with rights as well as responsibilities, even though I am no longer an employee. After six months of fruitless negotiation I now have no choice but to take legal action.

I need your support please to raise a minimum of £10,000 to fight to regain my rights of access and to continue research. I have excellent legal representation, with Ziqyia Riaz, a brilliant young Glasgow solicitor, instructing Sir Crispin Agnew QC. Our case is strong, so that if it goes to the Court of Session in Edinburgh there is every chance of success; if that happens I will need to 'stretch' the funding to at least £20,000

Photo credit: Google Earth. Chesapeake Energy gas well pad Welles-1 and waste water storage pond, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, looking south. The fracked horizontal well driven south in the Marcellus Shale probably contaminated homeowner water wells by passage up the faultline running from the water wells northwards through the storage pond. Note the dead woodland in May 2014, probably due to methane or hydrogen sulphide leaks from depth, compared to the earlier image.

About the claimant

I am David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics at Glasgow University. I retired 18 years ago. Over the last few years I have: invented a new kind of 3D medical ultrasound diagnostic imaging method; helped persuade Cumbria County Council to refuse a nuclear waste repository; defined a new objective nuclear accident magnitude scale, NAMS, after Fukushima in 2011; and more recently have helped local opposition groups by providing technical objections to planning applications for fracking and coal bed methane. All this research has been pro bono.

Fast facts

  • At stake

The university abruptly terminated my online research access three days after I published a research paper critical of fracking. Without such access I can no longer conduct serious research - in fracking, nuclear waste disposal, or in any other subject. I need to regain my rightful online access, which costs the university nothing.

  • The fundamental issue

Certain elements in the university are acting in the interests of their corporate oil industry funders, who want me silenced. We must not allow this kind of intellectual corruption to continue.

  • The legal team

I am represented by Ziqyia Riaz (Patrick Campbell Solicitors, Glasgow) and Sir Crispin Agnew QC. Sir Crispin represented the objectors at the 2014 Falkirk coal bed methane planning inquiry where I was an expert witness. He and Ziqyia have also worked together on several cases.

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Progress to date

Oct. 14, 2016

My solicitor Ziqyia Riaz has now written to the University, in a final attempt to settle before court action, as follows:

My client is prepared to resolve matters on the following basis:

1. That his university email address and access to this be reinstated immediately,
2. That access to the library and other facilities, both physically and electronically, be reinstated immediately,
3. That his GUID be reactivated immediately,
4. That Professor Paul Younger issues a public apology for, and retraction of, his defamatory comments about my client, published in the national press in 2014, and
5. That the legal and other miscellaneous expenses (including purchase of academic articles) necessarily incurred to date by my client as a result of the termination be reimbursed in full.

My client hopes that matters can be resolved amicably, failing which I shall advise my client to raise a Court action for breach of contract, in which expenses would also be sought.

Funded

Aug. 18, 2016

We hit our first target!

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