Fracking researcher takes first step in “academic freedom” case against Glasgow University

David Smythe

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.”

Long-running dispute

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.”

The emails


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.”

Academic credentials

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”.

Professor Smythe has defended his argument about fracking on his Frackland website. In an article posted this month he concluded:

“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)”.

Industry contacts

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.


Timeline of Glasgow University emails

Emails obtained by subject access request by David Smythe

Emails obtained by Spinwatch Freedom of Information request


28 replies »

    • Anon – you’re completely wrong. The Topical Editor and I agreed that because of all the comments received and the wide ranges of issues covered, the paper could not feasibly be revised and resubmitted, as it would entail too much editorial effort. However, he told me that a new review, just focussed on the UK shale and fault contamination problem, would be welcomed, given the interest in the topic. It was by far the most discussed paper ever received by that journal.
      As for the other aspects of that paper; I am currently preparing the Pennsylvania case history as a separate paper, and I am putting my evidence for the lack of faulting in the US shale basins online as an informal and updateable database. I shall drop the review of quantitative modelling of flow up faults, because the field has moved on rapidly in the last year, and US authors have now covered that. I am not sure at present how to deal with the evidence for inadequate UK regulation, my fifth topic.
      As for the peer review of the original paper; Prof Haszeldine (Edinburgh) was broadly in favour; Prof Aplin (Durham), an academic almost totally supported by fossil fuel funding, was (surprise-surprise!) against – but one of his comments was so ignorant that I was obliged to comment on it; the two other referees, against publication, were anonymous and clearly non-native English speakers, and, indeed, the report of one of these two was almost incomprehensible.
      In retrospect, it was my fault for submitting a paper trying to cover five different topics. But no need to worry, Anon; my research will all emerge in due course via different channels and academic journals.

      • Your “research?” I do not view it as research, but instead as anti-frack propaganda. Many share my beliefs, including the University where you once taught, the Geological Society, and a number of your ex-colleagues.

        We have seen this play out so many times. Some academics go off the deep end. They become so convinced of their cause that they lose all objectivity. Scientific method takes a backseat to promoting an agenda. You can hear it in your words above where you’re threatening those who oppose you with the publication of future research, “But no need to worry, Anon; my research will all emerge in due course via different channels and academic journals”

        You can only hurt yourself and your cause with this type of behavior.

        • Peeny – It’s a shame (but significant) that you feel threatened at the prospect of an academic publishing his research.

          Strangely, many of us trust the words of an academic, respected enough to have been granted an emeritus professorship of a distinguished University, more than we do somebody who spends their life shiling for the fracking industry and doesn’t even have the integrity to use their own name or one single identity.

          hballpeenyahoocom, bard welsh, brad welsh, jim georges, hballpeen – are there any more you need to confess to?

          You know, you can only hurt yourself and your cause with this type of behaviour.

    • Well Anon, whether or not his claims were rightly rejected isn’t the point, the point is he has an unfettered right to make his knowledge public, whether the disgraceful university agrees with his views or not, and no university should be trying to stifle open debate upon any issue, or else loses its right to be called academic, or respectable.
      Sad times when academic institutions prostitute themselves, their objectivity and their respectability for a paltry pot of money.
      Still, I’m guessing you are prostituting yourself upon the altar of Mammon with your churlish and rather gratuitous character assassination link, did you write it ?

  1. If this is true as reported then it is shocking. I suggest all of us interested in preserving the principle of academic freedom object to the University in writing, requesting restoration of lost privileges to Prof. Smythe and a full apology. Shades of Galileo et al., and a possible example of corporate power directing University policy! Regards, David Cragg-James

    • Sadly David, when money comes in through the window and back door, ethics and academic excellence get flushed down the toilet as with Glasgow university’s bad attitude.
      Anyone on a research course gets to know the final write up , regardless of what any research finds, always speaks to he who pays the money for it.

    • Peeny – what has that ludicrous piece by an arch climate change denier got to do with this article? Even the title is ridiculous as everybody (including Cuadrilla) admits consumers’ energy bills will not be slashed by fracking.

      As you seem to be a self-appointed judge of academic quality have a little read of this http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2015/08/bjorn-lomborg-just-a-scientist-with-a-different-opinion/ – it will show you exactly how much respect the author is held in by his academic peers.

      Can I also ask you to try to keep your comments germane to the article you are posting under – it is very tedious for the rest of us when you plaster comments pages with irrelevant tosh like that.

      • John did you notice the irony in accusing Lomborg of being “just a scientist with a different opinion” not supported by his peers when Smythe is also exactly that by his own admission.

        By the way did anyone notice the nonsense in the electricity market last week. Chris Somers, energy analyst at ICIS has said that this has been the craziest weeks ever for wholesale electricity prices with very short term backup power trading briefly at over $1000 per megawatt hour (10x the Hinkley strike price incidentally) and the wholeday price for Monday being $200. He says that traders are understandably reassessing the risk for this winter given the volatility now in only September. Some providers are buying out of their longer term supply contracts with the hope/expectation of making massive profits on the day ahead supply market in the colder months. I guess it all means potentially much higher prices to the consumer. We really need to balance risks of energy poverty against our carbon reduction obligations.

        Seems to me HMG ought to be considering security of supply more urgently. Energy price and supply security is their business. A great deal of this mess is due to increased dependence on subsidised, unreliable, intermittent, weather dependent wind and solar power. Some say we pay three times for renewables, once for the energy, once for the green subsidy and once for the subsidy to the necessary fossil fuel backup. Look out for a one year fix on your lecky bill if you can find one or, like Prince Charles, buy a woolly pully.

        • Mark – I didn’t accuse Lomborg of being “just a scientist with a different opinion”. Did you not notice the inteneded irony in the title of that piece by it’s author?

          Exactly how do you imagine the quantities of gas they MAY be able to extract by fracking are going to provide supply security or reduce the price?

          As to your three times payment – explain how that would be any different for fracking – once for the energy, once for the subsidy required to make fracking break even and once for the subsidy for the additional renewables we’ll still need given the relatively small contribution the fracking industry will be able to make without having a hugely negative impact on our densely populated country.

  2. I see the fracking troll farms are busy today, i read an interesting article that highlights the present proliferation of ‘astroturfing’ these are professional organisations hired by various interest agencies to drown out sensible discussion by the use of sophisticated software and multiple identities operated by a single individual of many. these are termed “persona management software” Presumeably swappable between paid individuals. Read it here and look at what appears on these anonymous posts from pro fracking interests and consider for yourselves if you are talking to software (up to 70 personas in one), a paid operator or a real independant person.


    There are many other pointers towards this insidious movement of invasion and control by special interest secret organisations. Please look up these yourselves.

    • The good news Phil, is that these fracking ‘troll consortiums’ are demonstrating their lack of credibility, fear and panic.

      There have been some amazing posts in response to their nonsense; factual and clear, and some entertaining!

      It is my hope that those reading the ‘banter’ are able to make a judgement based on the credible content (sometimes it is very easy!).

      • Fracking troll farms? Wow! Do you really think such an entity (if it existed) would bother with Drill or Drop? How many people actually read this BB? I don’t expect any of the mostly anti frackers on here could be persuaded to become fracking supporters. It is just a small forum to read what is happening (Ruth does a good job with the news) and discuss the various issues raised – banter as Sherwulfe correctly calls it. There are a few people on here who appear to be pro fracking, and one or two who have worked in industry who can make technical coments. But I would doubt anyone on this BB really believes that this “banter” is going to alter anyones position on fracking in the UK. Most people are anti on this BB because they live near potential fracking sites and don’t like what they perceive will happen near their homes – fair enough. But the comments and discussion on here won’t make any difference to whether or not the various wells go ahead or are refused.

        • That is the current trend Paul, and yes, i can see that any forum that proposes contrary views to certain pressure groups can be targeted, Drill or Drop is one such forum. The purpose of these pressure groups is to stifle debate, when a casual visitor sees the sort of treatment they are likely to get when posting, then that will probably dis-encourage them to do so, and that is the purpose fulfilled. if you dont believe this sort of activity is possible, or even probable, then don’t take my word for it, please look at the reports of such activity yourself.

        • Ineos shale team follow this site and have posted a few times. If they follow it I would imagine other drilling companies also. There is plenty of information the Industry does not want in the public domain. We have seen who is watching our community group sites. I was very surprised. This is a multi billion pound ponzi scheme so has attracted much global attention.

      • Sherwulfe, i appreciate your comments, i agree that most of the comments here can be banter, what is interesting i find is that the pro fracking posts can be three things, informative, for that i am grateful, as this can help to focus upon the issues that are raised. Then there is the contrary type, that simply rejects any mail which is anti fracking as ill informed or misled or worse, often this just concentrates on one single issue, the rest is ignored and not acknowledged. The third is outright abuse, trolling of the worst kind. What i find telling is that all three attitudes can come from one address. The terms troll farms and astroturfing come from other sources, not mine, they just seem to fit the bill of some of these posts. None of this is illegal, but it sometimes pays to look closely at what is portrayed as banter when it can be little more that a program employed by pressure groups to stifle proper debate.

        • I totally agree Phil, but what is the course of action? If Ruth bans those we know are ‘sockpuppets’ to coin a phrase from John, then they will reappear with a different handle….better the devil you know in my book.

          The way to deal with the rubbish and distracting techniques is to ignore it. Trolls feed of diversion and abuse. They will not stop until they get the last word, even if its a load of fertilizer! Let them have it and go somewhere where a healthy debate is occurring and post your facts or ask your questions. I personally just bypass certain handles now and just get to the information (although, I have to say, I love John’s ever witty responses!)

          Just to clarify, abusive trolling is actually illegal and carries a prison sentence.

          • Abusive trolling will be blocked on DrillOrDrop – we read every comment to check that it is in the spirit of DrillOrDrop’s house rules. We try to keep a balance allowing robust and free debate while aiming to prevent personal abuse and aggressive language. Please draw our attention to any comment that you think has slipped through the net.

            Paul Seaman
            Moderator, DrillOrDrop

          • yes, i agree and you are right about the law. I think i have strayed into moderation territory once or twice, i must learn to keep cool and think of a pollution free England.

    • I am not programmed to respond to such outrageous suggestions.

      When you have to tap everything out on an Ipad it’s hard enough to keep up your own identity….own identity….own identity…..own identity…….

      • Nice comment, i like it! Yes maybe i’m just paranoid, the question i sometimes ask myself is am i paranoid enough enough enough enough, en……..bzzzzzt

    • “Special interest secret organisations” …well I’m a member of U3A, the RAC and the National Tust….any of those count?

      On the other side in 2014 – Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Russians had mounted a highly organised spy plot working with green activists to halt fracking in the UK. …so when someone drops a couple of Roubles into the bucket at the next demonstration, take heed.

      • Yeah, those roubles! i like the new plastic ones, guaranteed to survive a nuclear attack, unfortunately, i am not not not not not n……bzzzzzzt

  3. ‘Fracking troll farms?’ ?

    Paul, there are 664 followers of this blog; clearly not all post and those who post are not always followers; there will be those who read who may do neither.

    For those who do post, it is clear what viewpoint they follow; not a necessity to be a local to fracking to oppose, though.

    The news article themselves are informative. The questions raised and the diverse and knowledgeable answers enhance the subjects introduced on the post. Even on occasion when they go off topic some interesting facts from both viewpoints are raised and discussed.

    Don’t underestimate the power of this information site or the judgments and subsequent actions of those who read it.

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