Academic freedom of expression denied by corporate lobbying

by David Smythe

Academic freedom of expression denied by corporate lobbying

by David Smythe

My technical opposition to fracking conflicts with corporate research funding at Glasgow University, which has now silenced me by cutting off my rightful research links.

on 18th August 2016
pledged by 362 people

My technical opposition to fracking conflicts with corporate research funding at Glasgow University, which has now silenced me by cutting off my rightful research links.

Latest: Sept. 18, 2018

Case won with all costs!


Following a day in court in June 2017 Glasgow University restored my access to essential online academic sources, and agreed to pay all costs to date. My principal opponents at the universi...

Read more

Academic freedom of expression abruptly terminated

In my research I depend completely upon having access to the online academic database via a link to the University of Glasgow, my former employer. Upon retirement in 1998 I was made Emeritus Professor of Geophysics and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Both are for life; as a member of the College of Science and Engineering I am entitled to access the library and other facilities, both remotely and by physical entry.

After retirement I did some part-time consulting for the oil industry, but I have mainly applied my time and expertise to difficult technical issues of wide social interest, including the disposal of nuclear waste, medical ultrasound imaging, and how to measure serious civil nuclear accidents, such as Fukushima, in an objective way.

On 30 January 2016 my university online access was suddenly terminated, without warning or explanation, after 17 years of trouble-free access. The fundamental issue at stake here is freedom of academic expression: here’s why.

Fracking - the immediate issue

In 2014 I started to publish technical information critical of the growing UK fracking industry. Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University disagrees with my views on fracking; he and many other UK earth science academics depend upon industry and government for research grants. I have written many reports for local objectors’ groups, forensically dissecting the fossil fuel industry’s planning applications. The companies that I have criticised technically include Cuadrilla Resources, Dart Energy, IGas, and Celtique Energie. The common theme in my work is the risk of contamination of groundwater resources due to the complex faulted geology of the UK. This theme followed on naturally from my researches in West Cumbria, where extensive faulting is the chief reason why a nuclear waste repository should never be sited there.

On 27 January this year I published online an academic paper about fracking, giving my affiliation as Glasgow University, as I am supposed to do when publishing such papers.Three days later my university email address and access to the library system were terminated. Internal emails I obtained recently show that the termination was directly linked to the publication of my research article. No proper procedures were followed at to arrive at the termination decision. The University claims that the termination was part of a “routine review”. This is untrue.

Corporate influence on universities– the wider issue

Glasgow University has been trying to develop close links with Cuadrilla Resources Ltd, the company in the vanguard of UK fracking for oil and gas. Emails show that two Cuadrilla staff even flew to Glasgow for talks in June 2015. Cuadrilla may also have been behind the request from Lancashire County Council to Paul Younger to review my detailed technical submissions to the council planning department. Younger had earlier written that their “Various industrial research partners” wanted the university to distance itself from my views. My own view on corporate influence was expressed to the university in 2014:

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.

Why this affects you

You, the public, have to depend on scientific experts for discussion and evaluation of many complex issues. It was once true that an academic speaking on a subject within his or her expertise could be relied upon to be free of outside influence. But this is no longer the case in the earth sciences, where the fossil fuel industry has developed a pervasive and often malign influence on how the researchers that they fund behave. So pervasive is this influence that some researchers, even when funded almost entirely by the industry, still regard themselves as ‘independent’.

The next steps

We 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.

I need your support please to raise a minimum of £10,000 to fight to regain my rights of access and to continue research. I have excellent legal representation, with Ziqyia Riaz, a brilliant young Glasgow solicitor, instructing Sir Crispin Agnew QC. Our case is strong, so that if it goes to the Court of Session in Edinburgh there is every chance of success; if that happens I will need to 'stretch' the funding to at least £20,000

Photo credit: Google Earth. Chesapeake Energy gas well pad Welles-1 and waste water storage pond, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, looking south. The fracked horizontal well driven south in the Marcellus Shale probably contaminated homeowner water wells by passage up the faultline running from the water wells northwards through the storage pond. Note the dead woodland in May 2014, probably due to methane or hydrogen sulphide leaks from depth, compared to the earlier image.

About the claimant

I am David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics at Glasgow University. I retired 18 years ago. Over the last few years I have: invented a new kind of 3D medical ultrasound diagnostic imaging method; helped persuade Cumbria County Council to refuse a nuclear waste repository; defined a new objective nuclear accident magnitude scale, NAMS, after Fukushima in 2011; and more recently have helped local opposition groups by providing technical objections to planning applications for fracking and coal bed methane. All this research has been pro bono.

Fast facts

  • At stake

The university abruptly terminated my online research access three days after I published a research paper critical of fracking. Without such access I can no longer conduct serious research - in fracking, nuclear waste disposal, or in any other subject. I need to regain my rightful online access, which costs the university nothing.

  • The fundamental issue

Certain elements in the university are acting in the interests of their corporate oil industry funders, who want me silenced. We must not allow this kind of intellectual corruption to continue.

  • The legal team

I am represented by Ziqyia Riaz (Patrick Campbell Solicitors, Glasgow) and Sir Crispin Agnew QC. Sir Crispin represented the objectors at the 2014 Falkirk coal bed methane planning inquiry where I was an expert witness. He and Ziqyia have also worked together on several cases.

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Update 3

David Smythe

Sept. 18, 2018

Case won with all costs!


Following a day in court in June 2017 Glasgow University restored my access to essential online academic sources, and agreed to pay all costs to date. My principal opponents at the university have either left or retired. My right to use the title Emeritus Professor, etc. has been reconfirmed. I declined the request that published material about the case be removed from my website, on the ground that material damaging my reputation remains online and cannot be removed, so needs to be rebutted. I can now redistribute your contributions to another active worthy CrowdJustice case (or cases) with similar aims. Those who of you contributed £1000 or more will have received pro rata refunds.

Sense has finally prevailed - thank-you !


Sir Crispin Agnew QC agreed to represent me. I had met him in 2014 when he represented the objectors at the appeal against refusal of planning permission for a coal bed methane project near Falkirk, and found him to be highly competent, approachable and congenial. Although my case has evidently been about the right to freedom of academic expression, with the environment and fracking as a subsidiary cause, Sir Crispin cleverly decided to raise an Initial Writ as a commercial action based on loss of income resulting from the termination of my rights of access. This approach was to force the university to respond rapidly - within two weeks as required by such actions - instead of continuing on its leisurely slow response.

There was a preliminary hearing at the Sheriff Court in Glasgow before Sheriff Reid on 16 June 2017, with my solicitor Ms Ziqyia Riaz and Sir Crispin representing me. I was not present. Ms Riaz explained the day's outcome to me by phone. Here is a summary.

The court appearance was preliminary, in that it was only to request interim restoration of my access before the main case was heard. Firstly, Sheriff Reid noted my legal team comprised two, but said that although the case looked simple in principle, it was actually rather complex, therefore he was pleased that Sir Crispin was present. It quickly became clear that Sheriff Reid simply did not believe the lawyer for the Glasgow side, for instance that the date of my termination, occurring three days after I had published an academic paper about fracking, was merely coincidental. He appeared to accept all the arguments that Ziqyia and Sir Crispin put forward. In conclusion, at the end of the day he ordered Glasgow to restore my access within 24 hours, and strongly encouraged both sides to agree an out-of-court settlement. He also awarded all costs for the day against Glasgow - a very unusual move at this stage in a case, according to Ms Riaz.

Both sides then asked the court to put a hold on the case. After further exchanges, in which the university offered me my access back on a permanent basis, but nothing else, I agreed a request by the university to meet the new Secretary of the University, Dr David Duncan. I made it a condition that it would be off the record and with no lawyers present. This meeting took place on 20 October 2018, and turned out to be very cordial. Dr Duncan could see the strength of my position, and after a while he interrupted the discussion to say he could see no problem in my having online access and continued use of the Emeritus title - in other words, continuation of the rights that had been granted by my retiral agreement of 19 years previously. Above all, he wanted Sir Crispin to be 'stood down' - no doubt because he could see that my continued use of Sir Crispin would incur the university in significant extra costs.

I wanted the university to make an effort to have the defamatory press articles from 2014, instigated by Professor Younger, removed or corrected, but he said that the university, acting as a third party, would be ignored. I replied that I would ask Ms Riaz to write to the three newspapers, at Glasgow's expense.

Dr Duncan offered to reimburse all my costs to date, and agreed to furnish me with a draft letter, to be approved by myself, confirming the reinstatement, etc. I declined his request to remove all the case material published on my website, because since the status quo ante (i.e. pre-2014) could never be restored, I needed rebuttal information to be in the public domain.

He told me that Professor Younger had taken early retirement the previous March on ill-health grounds. He died in March 2018. Documents disclosed by FOI and a Subject Access Request show that it was Professor Younger who had instigated the moves between 2014 and early 2016 to have me isolated and cut off from university access. There was even talk of steps being taken to have my title revoked. Mr David Newall, the previous Secretary of the Court, who took the formal decision on behalf of the Court to have me terminated (but without the matter ever having been discussed at Court), has since left. Professor Maggie Cusack of Geography & Earth Sciences, who supported the action, has also gone elsewhere. I find it sad that Paul Younger, a member of the Court in addition to being Professor of Energy Engineering, was apparently believed by a gullible group of his senior colleagues, whereas no-one ever sought to ask my view.

I asked Dr Duncan to have a word with Dr Rob Westaway, former colleague of Younger and still at Glasgow, to ensure that he never repeats his unacceptable and unprofessional conduct of complaining directly to the board of editors of the journal in which I had published my discussion paper.

I told Dr Duncan about my past and current research work, stressing that all I want to do is to be able to carry on pursuing sound scientific research, which often has a social application (including nuclear waste disposal, fracking, a quantitative scale for nuclear accidents, and a new method of 3D medical ultrasound imaging). I mentioned that according to ResearchGate (a sort of Facebook for academic researchers) the 'most-read' researcher at Glasgow each week (out of the 11,000 university members) is frequently myself. We parted on good terms.

Dr Duncan's letter, dated 5 January 2018, states:

"Dear Professor Smythe 

I am writing to confirm that as an Emeritus Professor of Geophysics, College of Science & Engineering, University of Glasgow, you are entitled to continue to use that title without hindrance. For clarity, I would ask you to indicate that you are an Emeritus rather than a current Professor in any future publications or correspondence. 

I also confirm that you may continue to use your University email address and that your library access privileges will remain in place on a permanent basis. 

For my part, I regret the recent dispute between the University and yourself, which involved the termination of your library and email access (as specified above) between January 2016 and June 2017. I have no reason to doubt your integrity as a scientific researcher, and hope that you will continue to be as productive in your research as you have been since your retirement in 1998."

Ms Riaz failed to get The Telegraph or the Daily Mail to correct or remove their defamatory articles, but The Times did agree to put the word 'lied' in its article headline into quotes; a small victory there - but few people read Times articles because they are behind a paywall. She also wrote to Dr James Verdon, now a lecturer at Bristol University, to ask him to remove the outrageous and defamatory comments made about me in his 'Frack-land' blog. This letter was copied to the Vice-Chancellor at Bristol. Verdon quickly complied with the request.

The costs reimbursed by Glasgow amounted to £12,459, of which £10K (+ VAT) are the legal costs, plus £459 due to me for costs incurred during the period when I had to pay for research material to which I would otherwise have had free access. Those of you who contributed £1000 have been offered a refund, and I am re-assigning the remainder  (£11.7K) to a new campaign.

It remains for me now to thank all of you, and my legal team Ms Riaz and Sir Crispin, for enabling this positive outcome.

Update 2

David Smythe

Oct. 14, 2016

Progress to date

My solicitor Ziqyia Riaz has now written to the University, in a final attempt to settle before court action, as follows:

My client is prepared to resolve matters on the following basis:

1. That his university email address and access to this be reinstated immediately,
2. That access to the library and other facilities, both physically and electronically, be reinstated immediately,
3. That his GUID be reactivated immediately,
4. That Professor Paul Younger issues a public apology for, and retraction of, his defamatory comments about my client, published in the national press in 2014, and
5. That the legal and other miscellaneous expenses (including purchase of academic articles) necessarily incurred to date by my client as a result of the termination be reimbursed in full.

My client hopes that matters can be resolved amicably, failing which I shall advise my client to raise a Court action for breach of contract, in which expenses would also be sought.

Update 1

David Smythe

Aug. 18, 2016


We hit our first target!

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