Environment Fracking

University urged to lift fracking ban on professor

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.

Internal university emails released under freedom of information law show that it was concern over his views on fracking that led to his access rights being removed.

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.”

The letter from Concerned Communities of Falkirk to the University of Glasgow is here and here.

Photo thanks to Mike Peel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Notable Replies

  1. conrad says:

    [Just to declare interest: I've supported the crowdfunder for Prof. Smythe's case]

    I think this story really needs some far deeper arguments to be brought out than appears to have happened thus far. In particular, the David vs Goliath aspect is very simplistic. On Glasgow Uni (GU)'s side, they have a twenty-year-retired ex-member of staff "trading" on his connection with them. Yes, he used to be Chair of Geophysics, but that was a while ago, the science may have moved on, and staff there question whether his expertise covers the areas in which he's speaking. Among recommendations he's made (if I understand correctly) is use of a 3D scanning technology that used to be a private business of his. On the flip side, it seems abundantly clear to me that retirement is often the only point at which you become truly free from sponsors' interests, no longer having "skin in the game", and there are many stories of universities punishing their staff for "free" speech which might threaten corporate or public funding streams.

    The criticism of the paper Prof. Smythe attempted to publish in January, which resulted in removal of his access from GU's systems, includes some valid points, such as its being important to distinguish between science and policy; his paper does seem to intertwine the two, which makes it difficult to separate evidence-based scientific argument from what might be claimed to be political opinion. Now as it happens my reading of the fracking situation is that it's a positive disaster of dodgy enmeshed policy and science, where corporations and bankrupt governments with vested interests are writing policy without obvious regard for the public interest. That entanglement is the thing we should be worried about before we even get into the science, and that too is an argument to be brought out.

    So this particular fight skims over the surface of a really deep and crucially important debate for our democracy, of how we establish trust and (where possible) truth, and how we generate justifiable policy in the public interest.

    It seems clear to me that the professor's access to research which his emeritus status grants him should be returned, but in a world where the public may not be so good at understanding the difference between a "professor" and an "emeritus professor", I have some sympathy for GU's wanting control over the use of their name. That said, their apparent failure to have any guidelines for same, and their private desire to strip Prof. Smythe of his emeritus status (as evidenced in the FoI emails) is exactly the kind of silencing of dissent that justifies public distrust of companies and institutions.

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