Science for Sale at USC?

January 12, 2016

Investigative Reports

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Oil RIg

The intersection of money and research

University of South Carolina geology professor James Knapp is an outspoken proponent for the possibility of offshore development in the waters off the South Carolina coast, rarely declining a media request for an interview.

Many times in the past  few years and as recently as Oct. 25 Knapp has spoken as a subject-matter expert in newspapers asnd media outlets, including The State, The Post and Courier, Coastal Review, The Beaufort Gazette, and The Coastal Observer.

Knapp even has appeared before Congress as an expert on offshore drilling at an oversight hearing of the House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources in January 2014. On his “Truth in Testimony” form, required by law for that appearance, Knapp lists his scientific and academic credentials as expected.

Under the section asking for any “employment, occupation, ownership in a firm or business, or work-related experiences that relate to your qualifications” Knapp lists a fact that’s often omitted from his background in articles quoting him – that he was a research geologist for Shell and that his wife, Camelia (also a USC geology professor with a specialty on geophysical exploration), is a former Chevron scientist who is the director of the school’s Earth Sciences Resources Institute, an “extramurally funded institute” that receives contributions from oil and gas companies in amounts the school will not divulge.

One fact not divulged on the “Truth in Testimony” form is that since 2013 the Knapps have maintained an outside, for-profit business called Palmetto Geosciences, LLC.

Whether or not the Knapps are or have been paid on the side by oil and gas interests through that LLC remains an open question, because unlike his previous accessibility, when a FOIA request for Knapp’s professional documentation and emails concerning Palmetto Geosciences was submitted by The Nerve, Knapp subsequently declined multiple requests for an interview.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

Some individuals don’t agree with Knapp’s advocacy for offshore exploration and drilling as a professor at USC and presumably objective scientist.

“Dr. Knapp should limit his discussion of the subject matter to areas he is an expert in, engineering and geology, not economic impacts and wildlife areas,” said Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation.

From a university conflict of interest standpoint, clarifying precisely what viewpoints are being expressed – personal or professional – is key to maintaining the reputation of scientific departments, according to the chair of USC’s Conflict of Interest Committee Morris Blachman.

“There’s a big difference with going out representing oneself or representing USC,” Blachman said.

Unless Knapp is receiving payments from oil and gas companies, he isn’t doing anything wrong by making comments about offshore exploration and drilling to the press.

“In any case, under academic freedom, every professor is entitled to express their views, but if there is an exchange of money through a contract or otherwise, there should be a statement declaring this so in order that the audience is aware,” said George Voulgaris, chairman of the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

Palmetto Geosciences is registered as a for-profit business according to South Carolina Secretary of State filings. The business is registered to the home address of James and Camelia Knapp, a review of Richland County property records shows.

Every year, the faculty of the college of Science and Mathematics are required to submit an Outside Professional Activities Report to their department chair including a statement of any paid or unpaid outside professional activities. Once the report is submitted to the dean of the college, the report indicates whether there is an appearance of conflict of interest or conflict of commitment. If there is, the chair will indicate action taken to resolve the conflict.

A FOIA request revealed that Knapp did list Palmetto Geosciences on his Outside Professional Activities report to the university in 2014 in which he claimed to have a managerial role or a material financial interest to a company in his field of research. He describes the company as a consulting entity organized under his name but as having no financial activity during calendar year 2014. A FOIA request for both James and Camelia Knapp’s Outside Professional Activities Report for 2013 and 2015 has not yet been honored by USC despite repeated requests.

BIG BUSINESS, BIG CHECKS

Oil and gas companies are very generous when it comes to donating money to colleges and universities nationwide.

Earlier this year, ExxonMobil presented the University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering with a check for $1.465 million – the largest check it had ever given a university – to support faculty, students and research. The same school also received a total of of $3.9 million from Shell back in 2012.

An important question to consider with these donations is whether or not there is an expectation of favorable research on the part of oil and gas companies when they give generously to university departments such as USC’s.

ExxonMobil Corporate Media Relations Senior Advisor William F. Holbrook said ExxonMobil provided more than $50 million worldwide to colleges, universities and other organizations that support higher education. Of this amount, more than $40.1 million benefited higher education in the U.S.

He said ExxonMobil cares about education and makes it an investment priority but there is no expectation of favorable research through their program when they donate. Critics beg to differ, saying the line is far more gray than black and white and the dangers of close relationships between funders and the funded are real.

“Private funding of university research is increasingly common,” said Michael Halpern, manager of strategy and innovation fo rthe Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s important for universities to publicly disclose private funding as well as whether there are any strings attached to that funding.

“Scientists also need better guidance on what should be disclosed and where it should be disclosed. Scientists should err on the side of transparency, especially if their work is policy-relevant and they participate in policy discussions. When speaking or testifying publicly, scientists and non-scientists alike should disclose their funding sources.

“Scientists also have the responsibility to distinguish between what their science says and what policy options they prefer. Multiple policy outcomes can be based on the same set of scientific research.”

Several oil and gas companies donate to colleges at the University of South Carolina. According to the departmental website, Apache Corporation, ConocoPhillips Co., EOG Resources, Inc., ExxonMobil Corporation, and BP America, Inc. all donate to the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

Additionally, ExxonMobil Foundation, Shell International Exploration and Production and Apache Corporation donate to the College of Engineering’s Sumwalt Society. Sumwalt Society donors are required to donate a minimum of $1,000 annually, but anything more than that is considered private information, according to the University.

Back at the University of Texas and all that money from oil and gas companies — in 2012 the school provost announced he was “re-examining” findings published in a report from one of its professors declaring that fracking was safe for groundwater when it became public that the professor had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a gas developer.

Do the gifts, previous work experience or any real or potential business of Palmetto Geosciences have anything at all to do with Knapp’s support for offshore exploration?

The only person able to answer that, for the first time in years, isn’t willing to talk about it.

Cecilia Brown works as a research assistant/intern at The Nerve and is a senior at the University of South Carolina studying journalism and mass communications. Reach her at 803-254-4411. Ron Aiken contributed to this report.