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UAF says Shell would get fair research, sans influence

alaskajournal.com: UAF says Shell would get fair research, sans influence

By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce
Web posted Sunday, April 13, 2008

Buck Sharpton, University of Alaska vice chancellor for research, said March 26 that under no circumstances could the university be bought by private entities financing research.

“The university’s not for sale,” said Sharpton, responding in a telephone interview to questions raised by an all-day gathering on the Fairbanks campus March 24 between university officials and representatives of Royal Dutch Shell. “We are not going to violate our integrity for money.”

Sharpton was responding to suggestions from critics that Shell might use its financial power to influence university programming and to influence discussion on the future of the North Aleutian Basin and Arctic Ocean.

“I spent 10 years as a faculty member, so I have a strong allegiance to the faculty,” he said. “I understand there is this desire (on the university’s part) to look for money, but whenever we move into a partnership with industry, industry has to recognize from day one that we are not going to do anything that would negatively impact our reputation as a university. I will not allow it; our faculty will not allow it.”

The gathering came in the aftermath of a two-day Anchorage workshop in late March on how oil and gas exploration and fisheries can co-exist in the North Aleutian Basin.

University officials said it was an apparent oversight that Sharpton was excluded from the event in which several dozen faculty members and students met with Susan Moore, Alaska operations manager for Shell Exploration and Production, and Victoria Broje, spill response specialist and environmental scientist with Shell Global Solutions.

Shell, which contributed $25,000 toward the workshop, has expressed interest in a federal Minerals Management Service lease sale for the area tentatively scheduled for 2011.

Alaska Sea Grant spokesman Doug Schneider noted during the workshop, which Sea Grant organized, that that event was the first in a series of meetings that Sea Grant hoped to hold to discuss the possibility of offshore drilling in the basin.

Schneider also said Shell officials would be coming to the Fairbanks campus following the workshop to learn more about the research capabilities of the university that could be related to Shell’s interests in Alaska.

“If they like what they see (in research capabilities) they will have to pay for it,” he said.

Sharpton said he didn’t learn until afterward about the daylong event, which included breakfast with university President Mark Hamilton, a working lunch with Director Roger Smith of the Geophysical Institute, and introductions to several faculty in the university’s School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, including Dean Denis Wiesenberg.

Sharpton said he was concerned about the issue of the university’s integrity, but was also troubled in another way by industrial partnerships with the university.

“I worry that we might be too inclined to do industrial research and take our eye off doing basic long-term research,” he said. “We have to ground ourselves in relevance, but we have a higher obligation to think about things that are not possible for industry to achieve a profit from. These basic research projects are extremely important for this country. Things that may pay off in a century, but also some things that industry may not be the slightest bit interested in.”

Curtis Smith, the Anchorage spokesman for Shell Oil, said that it is “an insult to a university system that prides itself on research and neutrality to assert that private funds influence (research) outcome.

“We are only interested in sound science and research,” he said. “If we did partner with the University of Alaska, that’s the outcome we would expect; sound science and research. When it comes to operating in an environmentally responsible way there are no industry secrets. We share that kind of information.”

Rick Steiner, who is on the faculty of the university’s Marine Advisory Program, was one of several people who questioned whether the university should be accepting funding from Shell.

Steiner said he felt that Shell is trying to manipulate the process in Alaska to its own strategic advantage through its funding for the workshop and meeting with university officials.

“The university is being drawn into a nontransparent, closed-door meeting between the oil industry and the state’s public university,” he said.

Schneider and other university officials have said that while private entities can buy the question in research work, they cannot buy the answers. University officials said that ultimately the credibility of the university rests on the credibility of its research, which must be deemed by peers as good science, regardless of funding sources.

In fact, Sharpton said, the vast majority of university research is conducted using federal funding, followed by some state funding. At most, about 5 percent of the university’s overall research funds have come from private funding, he said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected].

http://www.alaskajournal.com/stories/041308/hom_20080413012.shtml

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