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Zukoski reaffirms UB’s commitment to academic freedom

By SUE WUETCHER

Published September 13, 2012

Provost and Executive Vice President Charles Zukoski issued a memo to the university community on Wednesday affirming the university’s commitment to academic freedom and noting that it is “right and proper” for UB faculty to seek—and the university to accept—private-sector funding in support of scholarly activities.

In his email message, Zukoski noted the “heightened sensitivities” that have emerged regarding the “management of conflict of interest, giving rise to legitimate concerns regarding how faculty research is supported, conducted and reported.”

He called for the establishment of a joint committee, led by Alexander Cartwright, vice president for research and economic development, and Ezra Zubrow, professor of anthropology and chair of the Faculty Senate, to review university policies and practices related to research, scholarship and publication practices across the disciplines. The goal of the committee, he said, would be to offer “recommendations to develop and strengthen our policies in these areas.”

The creation of the committee comes at a time when debate is growing in the academic community nationwide regarding the role of industry funding in support of university research. The U.S. Public Health Service recently issued new conflict-of-interest guidelines, which UB has adopted, for PHS-funded university research.

Zukoski said that as a major research university, UB is one of the few places in our society where honest and open debates about any topic, including controversial subjects, can occur. As provost, one of my most important duties is to protect the academic freedom of all of our faculty to explore important topics, irrespective of whether or not they are considered controversial.”

It is “right and proper” for faculty to accept private-sector funding for their research, Zukoski said, noting that UB researchers are required to disclose annually any possible conflicts of interest. “If the conflicts are determined to be unmanageable, UB will not accept the funding,” he stressed.

He said that research involving shale gas has become increasingly controversial, and that when he arrived at UB this summer, he looked into the issues surrounding UB’s new Shale Research and Society Institute (SRSI).

Zukoski said his review of SRSI found that it had been established as a center within the College of Arts and Sciences to provide objective scientific research and analysis of the issues related to shale gas and hydraulic fracturing; it has received no industry funding, and center co-director John Martin did not receive industry funding for his work on the institute’s first report.

“The controversy that has arisen over the first report of SRSI exposes sensitivities we have to the integrity of research conducted at UB,” Zukoski said. “The result cannot be that we avoid undertaking and discussing topics that are current and where there is polarization of opinion. Instead, we must develop policies and practices in which we have confidence that, when followed, assure us that scholarship is undertaken without inappropriate conflicts influencing the results.”

“UB neither dictates the conclusions drawn by faculty from their research nor reviews faculty research before it is published,” Zukoski said. “Standards of academic conduct are monitored within our policies related to research integrity and conflict of interest and commitment. When allegations of research misconduct are made, UB has robust practices for responding to such allegations,” he said.

But in an ever-changing world, “we are continuously exposed to complex issues and events that challenge our policies and practices,” he said, calling the Faculty Senate “the appropriate place for such a policy debate to occur.”

“We attract and retain the world-class scholars of UB by sustaining extraordinary standards of excellence,” he said, adding that he looks forward to working with Cartwright, Zubrow and all UB faculty “to ensure our principles and policies remain anchored in our commitment to intellectual honesty and academic excellence.”

Visit the provost’s website to read the full text of his email message.