Glasgow University slated for ‘silencing’ fracking critic

The University of Glasgow has been accused of trying to silence dissent on fracking after withdrawing online access from one of its prominent professors.

David Smythe, an emeritus professor of geophysics and a leading critic of the fracking industry, has had his university email address cancelled, and his access to scientific journals cut off.

The action was taken without notice by the university authorities in January a few days after Smythe posted online a discussion paper critical of fracking safety and regulation in the UK. He has since been attempting to persuade the university to reinstate his access, but so far without success.

Smythe has submitted a series of objections to fracking plans in England, and appeared as an expert witness for community groups opposing plans to exploit coalbed methane near Falkirk in 2014. He has had a bitter public row with Glasgow University’s energy engineering professor, Paul Younger, who has voiced support for fracking.

Smythe, who held a chair of geophysics at the University of Glasgow’s geology department for ten years, was made an emeritus professor and honorary senior research fellow when he retired in 1998. Until January this year, he was allowed to use a university email address and to access scientific articles using a university pass.

The university’s abrupt decision to end his access could breach his retirement agreement, he claimed. He is currently taking legal advice on the matter.

Portrait de David Smythe and Sundara Farley in Ventennac
Professor David Smythe

According to Smythe, the fundamental issue was freedom of expression. “Some people at the university do not like my views on fracking, and they are seeking to silence me,” he told The Ferret.

“I am surprised and saddened that my alma mater and former employer is now stooping to such base tactics.”

He questioned whether Younger, who is a member of the university’s governing court, had exercised his influence. This is denied by Younger.

Scientists should be allowed to “slug it out” in public, Smythe argued. “But I cannot now fight my corner since the institution providing me with the essential access to the academic database has unilaterally decided to remove that access,” he said.

“The university seems to be adopting as their corporate view the opinions on fracking promoted by Professor Younger.”

Smythe has published his correspondence with Glasgow University, and email exchanges between the university, Lancashire County Council and the fracking firm Cuadrilla released under freedom of information law. He said that the documents, which amount to nearly 100 pages and are available below and on his website, back up his allegations. 

Some people at the university do not like my views on fracking, and they are seeking to silence me Professor David Smythe

Younger, a former fracking advisor to the Scottish Government, has frequently been quoted on the prospects for onshore oil and gas. Last month he attacked the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for taking “flight from reason” by hardening her stance against fracking.

He was reported in The Herald saying that he was “flabbergasted” that all but one of Scotland’s main political parties were “trashing” an industry that would re-employ North Sea workers “in a far safer environment”.

In 2014 Smythe was told by the university to make clear that his views on fracking were his own and did not represent the university’s current researchers. He was also attacked by Younger for allegedly misrepresenting his credentials as a chartered geologist.

Younger insisted, however, that he had nothing to do with the latest decision to cut off Smythe’s online access. “I have no control over such matters,” he said.

“His allegations are baseless speculation – which sadly is something Professor Smythe specialises in. I was elected to the university court by my peers, and have very specific duties in that capacity.”

Smythe’s name had never come up in his court duties, Younger said. “I have far more important things to do with my time than indulge in the sort of behaviour Professor Smythe fantasises about.”

Smythe was backed, however, by Dr Damien Short, a fracking and human rights expert from the University of London. “The pro-fracking lobby would dearly love to see Professor Smythe silenced,” he said.

“In the interests of open, honest, evidence based academic discussion, I hope the University of Glasgow will ensure that this does not happen and reinstate Professor Smythe’s research privileges immediately.”

He was also supported by the Scottish political satirist, Alistair Beaton, author of ‘Fracked! or ‘Please Don’t Use The F-Word’, a new play to be premiered at the Chichester Festival in Sussex. The play deals with university politics on fracking.

Mary Church, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “It’s remarkable that Glasgow University would risk its reputation by apparently stifling debate and freedom of expression around one of the most important issues of our time…It’s vital that academics who voice concerns about fracking, a new and particularly damaging frontier of fossil fuels, are not silenced.”

The University of Glasgow denied that it was stifling freedom of expression. “Professor Smythe has every right to express his views,” said a university spokesman.

“His email access was terminated earlier this year, as part of a routine review of email accounts in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. 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.”

Update: A follow-up story in Desmog UK on 1 August 2016 quotes newly-released emails showing how the University of Glasgow decided to cancel Smythe’s access because of his views on fracking. The emails have been published in full on Smyth’s personal website, and are also available below.

Cover image thanks to Diliff, Creative Commons 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of David Smythe thanks to Antonio Pagnotta.

Background documents

These documents, and others, are also available on David Smythe’s website.

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