This study examines the relationships between academia, the fossil fuel industry and public bodies – and how these relationships might influence the public debate over "fracking". It was commissioned by Talk Fracking.
"Frackademics": A study of the relationships between academia, the fossil fuels industry and public agencies, Paul Mobbs, Mobbs Environmental Investigations, February 2015
The purpose of reviewing the connections between different agencies is to understand the nature of the environment which defines and constrains those decisions, and to explain the context within which recent decisions or policies have been framed. It traces the potential mechanisms by which the public debate over unconventional gas and oil may be manipulated, and how that fits in to the Government's promotion of their policies on unconventional gas and oil.
In scientific debate, all issues should be open to objective examination. In practice, however, the conditions defining the terms of that examination often skew that process. People holding senior academic positions are also used to influence these discussions – even when they have their own vested interest in promoting an issue.
In the context of the modern public debate over the complexities of scientific information, this skewing of evidence can be exacerbated by the need of governments, or their public relations advisers, to 'accentuate the positive' behind their case. For example, the deliberate use of 'scientists' to provide a more positive view of unconventional gas and oil production was revealed in emails released by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) under the Freedom of Information Act. In a discussion with DECC, a Centrica employee stated –
Our polling shows that academics are the most trusted sources of information to the public so we are looking at ways to work with the academic community to present the scientific facts around shale.
The connections which define the environment for the debate on unconventional gas and oil are complex. In order to bring a clearer view to this information, six specific case studies have been selected to highlight different aspects of this issue. Each outlines different ways in which the scientific evidence for the safety, or not, of unconventional gas and oil may be manipulated to favour the 'pro' side of the argument (currently it is difficult to show an 'official' bias the other way).
Over recent years a term has arisen to describe the use of scientists to advance a favourable case for unconventional gas and oil – "frackademics". What this denotes is not simply the use of spurious claims of scientists to mislead the public. It is also emblematic the acceptance of industry or government financial support for academic institutes who provide the technical credibility for controversial policies. Thus it is not just the content of what is being said that is relevant, but also the context in which/by whom it is being spoken.
We have, from student loans to the part privatisation of our leading science laboratories, a crisis in science funding in Britain. This creates doubt as to the impartiality and objectivity of the information these agencies produce as it introduces a need to represent their clients interests. This doubt has been exacerbated by the Government use of partisan evidence and reports in their promotion of policy. As funding pressures grow, and industries who wish to advance certain special interests come in to fill the gap, we have to ask whether the public can fully trust the use of scientists or scientific evidence in the media.
There is no objective case to support the development of unconventional gas and oil in Britain. At best, reviewing evidence from studies from around the world, what we can say is that there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the scope and severity of impacts from these processes. Therefore the use of scientists by Government and industry to promote a positive view of these technologies is misleading, since in nearly all cases that uncertainty is not being represented to the public. This risks further diminishing the public's trust in science, as it is increasingly being used to support developments which arguably have an uncertain – but likely negative – impact upon the public's interests.