A research paper touted as peer-reviewed science – and used to justify New York’s ban on shale gas development – was actually peer-reviewed by active opponents of shale gas development who concealed their bias from the scientific community and the general public.
This violates at least four different codes of conduct for scientific research and raises more questions about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to ban hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in New York.
During a Dec. 17 press conference, acting New York health commissioner Howard Zucker held up the paper – literally – as an example of the “bona fide scientific literature” that supported his decision to block shale gas development in the Empire State. The paper, which claims oil and gas wells are producing “potentially dangerous” pollution levels, was written by authors with close ties to environmental groups, including the anti-fracking organizations Global Community Monitor and the Center for Environmental Health.
GCM and CEH promoted the October 2014 paper as peer-reviewed science. But according to the journal that published the paper, those peer reviewers were Sandra Steingraber, Robert Oswald and Jerome Paulson. Steingraber is the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking and, according to that group, “is a central voice in the fight against fracking.” Oswald co-authored a book that claims “fracking poses a dire threat,” campaigned to ban shale gas development in his upstate New York home town, and has advocated that local zoning laws be used as a “weapon in the war against fracking.” Paulson, a physician based in Washington, D.C., has teamed up with Steingraber and other activist groups to lobby against shale gas development in New York and “has called for a moratorium on all drilling,” according to The Public Record.
‘No competing interests’
None of this opposition to shale gas development was disclosed in the reviewer reports Steingraber, Oswald and Paulson submitted to the scientific journal that published the paper. In fact, they each stated: “I declare that I have no competing interests.”
This clearly violates well-established standards of peer review. According to the Council of Science Editors:
“If reviewers have any interest that might interfere with an objective review, they should either decline the role of reviewer or disclose the conflict of interest to the editor and ask how best to address it.”
Failing to disclose “a conflict of interest that would have excluded the reviewer from the process” is considered “reviewer impropriety” by the Council of Science Editors. The group takes this problem seriously because:
“A reviewer with strong feelings on a controversial topic might be partial to or biased against a manuscript on the topic and want to publish or reject it regardless of scientific merit.”
Another code of conduct for scientific research, developed by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, says:
“Public trust in the scientific process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how transparently conflicts of interest are handled during the planning, implementation, writing, peer review, editing, and publication of scientific work…
All participants in the peer-review and publication process—not only authors but also peer reviewers, editors, and editorial board members of journals—must consider their conflicts of interest when fulfilling their roles in the process of article review and publication and must disclose all relationships that could be viewed as potential conflicts of interest…
Reviewers must disclose to editors any conflicts of interest that could bias their opinions of the manuscript, and should recuse themselves from reviewing specific manuscripts if the potential for bias exists.”
According to The Committee on Publication Ethics:
“Peer reviewers should … declare any potentially conflicting or competing interests (which may, for example, be personal, financial, intellectual, professional, political or religious), seeking advice from the journal if they are unsure whether something constitutes a relevant interest…
[D]ecline to review if they feel unable to provide a fair and unbiased review…
[E]nsure their review is based on the merits of the work and not influenced, either positively or negatively, by any personal, financial, or other conflicting considerations or by intellectual biases.”
In 2010, the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity developed a statement of international standards for “responsible research,” which says:
“Editors should use appropriate peer reviewers for papers that are considered for publication by selecting people with sufficient expertise and avoiding those with conflicts of interest…
Editors should have a policy to request a formal conflict of interest declaration from peer reviewers and should ask peer reviewers to inform them about any such conflict of interest at the earliest opportunity so that they can make a decision on whether an unbiased review is possible…
Editors must take reviewer misconduct seriously and pursue any allegation of breach of confidentiality, non-declaration of conflicts of interest (financial or non-financial), inappropriate use of confidential material, or delay of peer review for competitive advantage.”
These ethical standards are widely accepted by scientific journals. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine says peer reviewers must immediately report “personal, professional, or financial conflicts of interest” so editors can “find another reviewer in their place.” The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science says peer reviewers have an ethical responsibility to provide “objective and impartial consideration of the facts.” Therefore, if reviewers have “any interest that might interfere with an objective review, they should either decline to review a paper or disclose the potential conflict of interest.”
Even Environmental Health – the journal that published the study reviewed by Steingraber, Oswald and Paulson – has editorial standards that require peer reviewers “to declare any competing interests,” both financial and non-financial. According to the publishers, non-financial competing interests “include (but are not limited to) political, personal, religious, ideological, academic, and intellectual competing interests.”
Activists reviewing other activists
The bias of these peer reviewers is especially troubling because the authors of the paper are also active opponents of the oil and natural gas industry, and were also less than forthcoming about it.
For example, in the paper, the authors deny having a “competing financial interest” and five of the paper’s seven authors admit they are “are employed by non-profit organizations whose mission is to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals.” But they don’t disclose that their groups actively oppose oil and natural gas development, including the use of hydraulic fracturing to produce energy from deep shape formations.
More to the point, when these authors are getting paychecks from groups that oppose oil and gas development, they clearly have a competing financial interest that should have been disclosed.
For example, Global Community Monitor is campaigning to ban hydraulic fracturing in its home state of California. The group insists “[t]here are no regulations that can make fracking safe” and has even called oil and gas development an “irredeemably toxic industry.” This position is so extreme it’s been rejected by California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown – one of the nation’s most celebrated environmentalists – and by President Obama’s environmental regulators, who have repeatedly concluded hydraulic fracturing has been safely used for decades.
Denny Larson, one of the paper’s authors and the executive director of GCM, has even admitted there’s a political agenda behind the “bucket brigade” air tests which were used to generate data for the paper. Environmental regulators have warned there are “serious technical deficiencies” with GCM’s methodology, in which volunteer activists use buckets lined with plastic bags to collect air samples. But Larson ignores the criticism because:
“The Bucket Brigade is not a scientific experiment. Our focus is on organizing. We use science, but only in the service of organizing.”
In fact, it appears the “bucket brigade” research paper includes data collected by a Colorado activist group as part of a fundraising drive. One of the activists told the Boulder Daily Camera in 2012 that the test results would be used to lobby a celebrity donor into giving the group $10,000:
“If something comes up that is concerning, maybe we can get more funding.”
Likewise, the Center for Environmental Health has a strong bias against oil and gas development that should have been clearly disclosed in the research paper. CEH actively supports the shale gas ban in New York because the group believes:
“Instead of fracking we should be focusing on renewable solutions that provide healthier energy alternatives to fossil fuels like oil and gas.”
CEH has also joined with “ban fracking” groups, including Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity and Bill McKibben’s 350.org, to demand that the Obama administration “put a halt to hydraulic fracturing.”
Then there’s the case of David O. Carpenter, one of the paper’s seven authors, who theoretically has no conflicts, according to the “competing interests” disclosure. Carpenter listed his affiliation as the University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment, but failed to disclose working with shale gas opponent – and his own peer reviewer – Sandra Steingraber at Concerned Health Professionals of New York. This group has spent years lobbying Gov. Cuomo and other state officials to block shale gas development in New York. For example, in March 2014 Carpenter sent a letter with Steingraber and other shale-gas opponents to Gov. Cuomo defending the state’s six-year “de facto moratorium” and demanding “New York State take a leadership role in the nation by announcing a formal moratorium.”
The same letter to Gov. Cuomo claimed there is a “lack of any evidence that fracking can be done safely,” and in a recent interview with Russia Today, Carpenter said he believes it’s “dangerous” and “should be stopped.” Again, this fringe position has been rejected by environmentalists who work inside the Obama administration. For example, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says the activists who claim “fracking is dangerous and should be curtailed full-stop” ignore that “fracking has been done safely for decades.”
The authors’ financial and non-financial ties to anti-energy activism should have been disclosed in the paper, as the World Conference on Research Integrity makes clear:
“Authors should disclose relevant financial and non-financial interests and relationships that might be considered likely to affect the interpretation of their findings or which editors, reviewers or readers might reasonably wish to know.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to indefinitely extend the state’s existing six-year moratorium on shale gas development has already been subjected to fierce criticism. For example, Energy In Depth found that acting health commissioner Howard Zucker’s report relies heavily on research papers that have been discredited by health officials in other states. The New York Daily News discovered that Zucker – who made an emotional appeal at the Dec. 17 press conference that he wouldn’t want his own child growing up near shale gas development – made up that part of his speech because he does not actually have children. Meanwhile, hundreds of New York landowners – who own the shale gas trapped underground – rallied in Binghamton, N.Y. to protest the “junk science” behind the ban.
But these new revelations about the “bucket brigade” study take the debate to a new level. Now we know at least one of Zucker’s “bona fide” research papers was the creation of shale gas opponents who appear to have found a way to subvert the peer-review process. Even more disturbing, some of those activists – Steingraber and Carpenter in particular – are senior figures in the campaign that successfully lobbied Zucker and Gov. Cuomo to block shale-gas development in New York.
This means shale-gas opponents wrote a paper, reviewed a paper and then convinced the State of New York to act upon the findings of a paper as though it was independent research. It also means the paper was misrepresented to the scientific community and the general public as “bona fide” research, not just by the authors and the reviewers, but by acting New York health commissioner Howard Zucker himself.
Did Zucker know about this, or was he deceived like the rest of us? And if Zucker calls this paper “bona fide” research, how are we supposed to trust his judgment on the others he used to justify New York’s shale gas ban? These are urgent questions that demand urgent answers from the Cuomo administration.