A retired academic has raised enough money to bring a legal challenge against Glasgow University, which he accuses of trying to stifle his opposition to fracking.
David Smythe, emeritus professor of geophysics at Glasgow, is seeking a judicial review of the university’s decision to withdraw his academic email address and access to online academic journals.
He used crowdfunding to raise his initial target of £10,000 within three-and-a-half days. As the fund-raising deadline expired this week he said he had enough money to begin the challenge.
Professor Smythe, who has supported anti-fracking groups across the UK, alleges that the university breached its contract with him, drawn up when he retired more than 15 years ago. He said the agreement gave him the status of an honorary research fellow for life. With that, he argued, came a university email address and the use of online journals.
He said the effect of withdrawing his journals access had been to deny his academic freedom of expression and to prevent him from carrying out research on shale gas.
“I need to have access to the journals. I download hundreds of journal articles a year”.
“Any honorary research fellow would have that right. That is the reason to have that title, to access the academic database [of articles].”
To self-fund the access would cost about £20,000 a year, he said.
“It is completely unaffordable.
“Loss of access has hampered my research for the last six months.”
University of Glasgow has refused to comment on the case beyond this short statement:
“Professor Smythe’s email access was terminated earlier this year, as part of a routine review of email accounts in the School of Geographical & 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.”
But email correspondence between senior academics reveals attempts by the university, dating back more than two years, to distance itself from Professor Smythe and to cut his access. It was at this time that he began submitting objections to onshore oil and gas planning applications and speaking against fracking.
The final decision was made by the university in January 2016, two days after the online publication of a draft article by Professor Smythe, in which he criticised UK shale gas companies.
The correspondence, obtained by Professor Smythe in a subject access request, also reveals that senior academics at Glasgow:
- Strongly disagreed with his argument that fracking risked contaminating groundwater because of the UK’s complex faulted geology.
- Argued that he was not qualified to make these statements
- Repeatedly sought to stop him using the emeritus professor title and affiliation to the university
- Discussed him with “industry partners”
- Expressed concern that his statements would damage the University’s reputation
Other correspondence, obtained in a Freedom of Information request by Spinwatch, reveals links between two Glasgow academics and Cuadrilla. Professor Smythe objected to the company’s applications to frack in Lancashire and criticised its operations in his online article.
Next steps to legal action
Professor Smythe said he has sought a legal opinion of his case from the barrister, Sir Crispin Agnew QC. The outcome of this will be known shortly, he said.
If Sir Crispin concludes that Professor Smythe has a case to make then Glasgow solicitor, Ziquia Riaz, will submit a request for a judicial review. Professor Smythe said:
“My objective is simply to get back my rightful access.”
He also said he was seeking a public apology and confirmation that his rights of access were for life.
“I need to demonstrate that Glasgow University cannot suppress views simply because certain of their current employees happen to disagree with these views.
“I am a lifelong member of the College, with rights as well as responsibilities, even though I am no longer an employee. After six months of fruitless negotiation I now have no choice but to take legal action.”
According to the correspondence, an early objection to David Smythe’s use of his emeritus professor title came in an email on 1 July 2014 from Paul Younger, who holds the university’s Rankine Chair of Engineering and is Professor of Energy Engineering.
On 16 July 2014, he accused Professor Smythe of fraudulently using the title “chartered geologist”, something Professor Smythe has denied. Later that day, the university’s deputy secretary, said she had sent a “cease and desist” letter to Professor Smythe. But she acknowledged:
“We cannot easily withdraw access to UoG email as it was part of an agreement when he left us; that said, if he continued to bring the University into disrepute we could escalate the situation”.
Following an article quoting Professor Smythe, Professor Younger wrote on 23 July 2014:
“Smythe has clearly paid no heed to your letter”.
Other complaints about the use of the title followed in October and November, including one email to Lancashire County Council.
Professor Smythe has said he has used his affiliation to Glasgow on academic papers as would be expected. He said:
“I believe that it is a correct assumption by the media that whenever an academic is speaking or writing, then he or she is doing so in a personal capacity.
“This is a core value of academic freedom in practice; it is different from, say, a company CEO or a government minister, where the assumption is that they are representing a group or corporate interest.
“Furthermore, the use of academic titles such as Doctor or Professor rightly endows the holder with some authority (in the appropriate field), and this fact is also correctly perceived by the media.”
In the 1 July 2014 email, Professor Younger criticised Professor Smythe for his statements on the risks of water contamination:
“I find your attempts to sow doubts in the mind of the general public by making claims that run counter to the basics of groundwater hydraulics and geochemistry utterly appalling”.
He said Professor Smythe’s activities risked “damaging our reputation in the eyes of the scientific community”.
On 4 July 2014, Professor Younger wrote to the university vice-principal saying that he and others could “provide detailed documents of how his [David Smythe’s] meticulous research is completely mis-conceived – mainly due to the fact he has no hydrogeological background.”
In October 2014, Professor Younger described Professor Smythe as:
“making representations on areas outside his expertise” and having “no knowledge of contemporary work here [Glasgow University], such as that en [sic] hydrology and inducted seismicity”.
“If Professor Younger wishes to engage with the fracking contamination debate in a meaningful way, I would respectfully suggest that he first reads and digests the existing scientific literature on the subject, instead of issuing ill-considered pronouncements in defence of fracking, and by quoting out-of-date and inadequate studies such as the 2012 Royal Society / Royal Academy of Engineering committee report (of which he was a co-signatory)”.
Professor Smythe has argued that his opposition to fracking conflicted with corporate research funding at the university.
According to the emails, Professor Younger wrote about David Smythe on 23 July 2014 in an email to the Director of Administration at Glasgow:
“Various industrial research partners have suggested an open letter to major newspapers making clear he does not speak for us. Not sure …”
In another email a week later, Professor Younger said he had spoken about Professor Smythe to a national newspaper journalist.
Two days later, The Times carried a story headlined Fracking row scientist lied about his credentials, quoting Professor Younger. The story was also carried by Mail Online and The Telegraph. Professor Smythe complained to the university.
The emails show that in October 2014, Robert Westaway, a senior research fellow at Glasgow’s School of Engineering, contacted Cuadrilla about the use of data to rebut a report by Manchester University. Later that month, Cuadrilla asked to see the wording that Glasgow proposed to use and Dr Westaway sent proofs of a paper on induced seismicity.
Dr Westaway had further contact with Cuadrilla on 6 February 2015, after planning officers recommended refusal of Cuadrilla’s plans to frack at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood on traffic and noise grounds.
In an email to the company, he suggested that a temporary junction and speed limit on the M55 might solve the traffic issues. He also said he hoped it would be possible to “accommodate” a change from 42 decibels to under 40 decibels for night time working at the sites at the proposed sites.
He admitted “these issues have nothing to do with geology” but concluded:
“Maybe you can pass these suggestions to the folks at Cuadrilla”.
Four days later, a reply from Cuadrilla said: “This is duly passed on to them via REDACTED email”.
In May 2015 a correspondent from Cuadrilla thanked Dr Westaway for a comment in the journal Applied Energy.
“Your scientific contribution to the often over-heated UK shale gas debate is very much appreciated”.
The correspondent suggested a meeting, which was arranged for 9 June 2015 in Glasgow. The next day, Dr Westaway asked Cuadrilla for its “preferred explanation” for Preese Hall, where fracking caused two small earthquakes in 2011.
In 2016, a correspondent from Cuadrilla thanked Dr Westaway for his message that David Smythe’s online article in Solid Earth was open for comment.