May 29, 2017

Penn State’s Academic Integrity Tested by Complaint

The Responsible Drilling Alliance has filed formal complaints with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that cite “unethical practices and abuse of public trust” for three papers published by Penn State professors.
By Tara Zrinski and Rachel Morgan, Shalereporter.com, Sept. 22, 2012

Penn State University is under fire again. But these allegations are far from the football field — they are purely academic.

The Responsible Drilling Alliance, a Williamsport-based non-profit, has filed formal complaints with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that cite “unethical practices and abuse of public trust” for three papers published by Penn State professors. The RDA said these shale gas industry-funded papers crossed the line from research into corporate advocacy.

“I think the reports produced under the Penn State banner have been very damaging to the shale conversation,” said Jon Bogle, a co-founder of the RDA. “The three reports weighted the conversation on the side of the gas industry, helping (them) to stave off taxes and regulations.”

In the complaint, the RDA claims the three Penn State-produced papers contain exaggerated predictions on jobs, economic development and tax revenues, and it called into question the academic integrity and professional ethics of Penn State’s administration and professors.

The complaint comes at a troublesome time for Penn State. Currently under accreditation review by MSCHE, the university has also faced increasing scrutiny of its governing structures in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.

Penn State, which remains accredited while on warning, has two years to comply.

Bogle, a retired professor at Lycoming College, said “[Penn State] needs to look at the governance and policy structures and make changes to insulate research from corporate advocacy.”

This advocacy, says the RDA, has made its way into university-generated research papers.

In July 2009, at the start of Pennsylvania’s shale gas boom, Penn State published “Emerging Giant: Prospects and Economic Impacts of Developing the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Play.”

The study was released at an industry-sponsored press conference on July 27, 2009. The lead author on the study was Timothy Considine, an energy and environmental economics professor who had left Penn State for the University of Wyoming, where he completed the study with the assistance of Robert Watson, a retired Penn State professor.

“The 2009 report went national in a matter of days through the shale gas PR machines,” Bogle said. “The Penn State reports are still being quoted as gospel by the governor and policymakers.”

In its first printing, the report failed to indicate that it was funded by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the drilling industry’s top trade group. Penn State subsequently released an update in 2010 with the disclaimer: “Neither the Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State nor the Marcellus Shale Coalition nor any person acting on behalf thereof, makes any warranty or representation, express or implied with respect to the accuracy, completeness or usefulness of the information contained in the report.”

But Penn State, a spokeswoman said, acted quickly to correct the report.

“The report that was issued in 2009 was revised — just eight days after it was published — when the university discovered the publication did not identify the sponsors of the research and the report had been referenced by the media as a ‘Penn State study,’” Lisa Powers, director of the Department of Public Information at Penn State, said Friday. “The report was corrected and re-issued.”

But for Bogle, this isn’t enough.

“Penn State needs to publically denounce the reports, distance their name from the endorsement and help mitigate the damage,” he said.

But Powers said that this report is just one in the naturally evolving field of scientific inquiry. In fact, Penn State’s faculty produces about 10,000 publications annually, she said.

“This was an early study at the onset of Marcellus development, and data was much more limited than it is at present,” she said.

Predicting more than 100,000 direct and indirect industry-related jobs by 2010, the “Emerging Giant” report of 2009 claimed that the “high level of drilling activity in Pennsylvania is a function of relatively lower taxes… this competitive advantage should be maintained.”

These predictions were influential deterrents to passing a severance tax on gas production proposed by then Gov. Ed Rendell in 2009, the RDA claims. Both “Emerging Giant” and the 2010 update were used by Gov. Tom Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley as the basis of their policies, allowing the industry to gain the tax concessions and pro-gas legislation that has characterized their administration, the alliance claims.

On June 4, 2010, the RDA sent a letter to Graham Spanier, former Penn State president, asking the university to publically disavow “Emerging Giant” and the 2010 update, saying, “the ‘Penn State Reports’ are being used to dissuade the legislature and the governor from enacting a severance tax and to argue against regulations which would protect the health of Pennsylvania’s citizens and its environment.”

William Easterling, dean of Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, responded in a letter on June 9, 2010, saying, “In the initial version of the earlier report, we found flaws in the way that the report was written and presented to the public.” Easterling also mentioned the failure to identify the sponsor of the research. “The authors could and probably should have been more circumspect in connecting their findings to policy implications for Pennsylvania, and may well have crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy,” he said.

In the end, Easterling found that retracting the initial version of the report and reissuing the update and disclaimer was enough to satisfy the academic integrity of a school that is ranked “third in the nation among major research universities in the amount of industry-sponsored research.” This research enterprise is worth about $800 million, Powers said, and Penn State wouldn’t jeopardize that or “its stellar research reputation by doing less-than-rigorous research or by allowing any of its faculty to act unethically.”

A third report, “The Pennsylvania Marcellus Natural Gas Industry: Status, Economic Impact and Future Potential,” was released under Penn State’s name in 2011, authored again by Considine and Watson, with the addition of Seth Blumsack, an assistant professor at Penn State.

The paper envisions a future where the “abundance of reliable, low cost natural gas could attract gas intensive manufacturing industries to expand capacity in Pennsylvania… contribute to inexpensive electricity that enhances industrial development and economic growth” and create “additional gains in employment, output, and tax revenues,” while “improving environmental quality and reducing imports of foreign oil.”

But Bogle doesn’t buy it.

“Considine and Watson have essentially developed a cottage industry publishing these reports,” he said.