Last week, I moderated a session on fracking at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The event went as we planned with seven speakers presenting their work on unconventional oil and gas development, but after the formal talks when we opened a panel discussion with questions from the audience, something unexpected happened.
Hydraulic Fracturing: Knowns, Unknowns and Communication to the Public
Myself and a colleague, Pallavi Phartiyal, organized the conference session as a follow-up event to our recent report, Toward an Evidence-based Fracking Debate, and a Science and Democracy Forum on fracking we held last summer. We wanted to bring into the fracking discussion some of the social and economic dimensions of the topic. In past years, AGU has had a number of sessions on fracking, but most have focused on the technical aspects such as induced seismicity and water quality issues—understandable for a conference composed primarily of geoscientists. We thought the audience could benefit from a broader discussion.
We placed our session in AGU’s Public Affairs Section and recruited diverse speakers from engineers to social scientists to a lawyer. We discussed the science—how many groundwater contamination cases had been detected and how much methane is estimated to leak from wells, for example. But we also discussed the implications of those findings—considering climate impacts, is this a technology we should be expanding? What kind of laws should be in place to minimize risks to communities? Many were questions not typically asked at a technical conference.
“What about the oil and gas industry?”
When it came time for the panel discussion, questions from the audience were just as diverse, but one in particular had a lasting impact. The questioner began, “To give you full disclosure, I am an academic researcher who receives money from oil and gas companies. Why is there no one from industry on the panel?” It sparked a discussion.
Like most AGU sessions, the event was open to anyone who wanted to submit an abstract. I and the other conveners of the session made decisions about who would speak at the session only after all submissions were received. No one from the oil and gas industry submitted an abstract. The panel replied with a few thoughts. One panelist noted that the UCS forum on the topic included several industry representatives. Another described his experiences of having great difficulty obtaining industry representatives, especially technical experts, to speak publicly on the topic.
Scientific Experts and Conflict of Interest
But independent of the specific reasons for a lack of industry representation at this particular event, the question raised a broader consciousness about scientific work, funding sources, and conflicts of interest. Every subsequent question from the audience began with the audience member disclosing whether or not they had received funding from oil and gas interests or from environmental groups before proceeding with their question for the speakers on unconventional oil and gas development. By raising the question of the influence conflicting interests may have on our scientific and other opinions, one man had transformed the discussion. The audience had now acquired a heightened awareness of this issues relevance to our conversation.
Beyond one conference session, disclosure of real or perceived conflicts of interests is gaining momentum. In an unprecedented move, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has asked for all commenters in its rulemaking process for silica exposure to disclose their financial backers, along with any potential conflicts of interest. In academics too, study authors are increasingly asked to disclose their funding sources and other financial interests, and they are reprimanded if they don’t. In the past, UCS has pointed to problems with undisclosed conflicts of interests in everything from the Endangered Species Act to food safety to FDA drug approvals.
Many scientific experts have their hands in multiple activities; often they are hired as industry consultants for their expertise. And an expert, of course, may be the best person for that job. But these relationships create complications when those same experts are charged with providing impartial advice on an issue that could affect their financial interests. Thus, it is incredibly important that all real or perceived conflicts are stated openly. ln many cases—such as that of Federal Advisory Committees and academic journals, we need regulations, rules, and ethical guidelines that require this disclosure. These forces help disclosure to happen proactively and push us toward a scientific culture of greater openness.
Perhaps our conference session will not bring about the widespread change in enhanced disclosure of conflicts of interest that is needed—but I do think it was a good start.