The University of Glasgow is under renewed fire for withdrawing online access from emeritus geology professor, David Smythe, because he was critical of fracking.
The Concerned Communities of Falkirk (CCoF), a group of local residents opposed to plans to extract underground gas, has written to the university asking for Smythe’s access to be restored.
The letter, published today by The Ferret, expresses dismay at the university’s decision in January 2016 to terminate Smythe’s access to the university’s research database and to cancel his email address.
“It is also disappointing that the university has not relented subsequently,” the letter says, adding: “The whole saga raises troubling questions, notably about academic freedom of expression.”
Smythe appeared as an expert witness for CCoF in the 2014 public inquiry into plans by Dart Energy to exploit underground coalbed methane around Falkirk. He gave evidence suggesting that local geology had been inadequately assessed, and that there was a risk of methane leaks.
The outcome of the inquiry is still unknown, as the plans were blocked by the Scottish Government’s moratorium on fracking and related developments. The moratorium was introduced in January 2015 to allow health and environmental impacts to be assessed, and is still in place.
According to CCoF, Smythe undertook work at short notice and without expectation of payment. “He had no vested interests, and was extremely generous with his time and energy,” its letter says.
“We found him consistently calm, polite and rational, even under pressure. Concerned Communities of Falkirk remain grateful to Professor Smythe for being prepared to undertake difficult, time-consuming work on behalf of local residents previously unknown to him.”
The letter continues: “Engaging critically with a powerful industry, he was willing to ask difficult questions and probe uncertainties, with our safety and well-being potentially at stake. Professor Smythe undertook to act for us because he felt it important and not for any personal gain of any kind.”
CCoF points out that Smythe has been subjected to “the most unedifying personal criticism” from other academics at Glasgow University. He has been involved in a fierce public row with the university’s energy engineering professor, Paul Younger, who has voiced support for fracking.
CCoF’s letter to the secretary of Glasgow University’s court, David Newall, concludes by suggesting that universities should seek truth, through impartial research in the sciences. “It is worrying to see an academic denied the opportunity to pursue his research, and to see him vilified,” it says.
“History will judge the rights and wrongs of this situation. In the meantime, we ask respectfully that Professor David Smythe’s access to research databases, and his university email be restored.”
The Ferret reported a month ago that Smythe had launched a crowdfunding appeal to fund legal action to force the university to end its ban. To date he has raised over £14,000, significantly more than his initial target of £10,000.
When The Ferret first revealed in June that Smythe’s online access had been cancelled, Glasgow University issued a statement that it has stuck to ever since. Yesterday, it reiterated the same statement.
“Professor Smythe’s email access was terminated earlier this year, as part of a routine review of email accounts in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences,” said a university spokesman.
“Professor Smythe left the university in 1998 and, while he retains the title of emeritus professor, he has no continuing practical association with the work of the university.”