Bosses at the University of Glasgow were motivated to remove the email account and online privileges of emeritus professor of geophysics David Smythe because of his anti-fracking views, DeSmog UK can reveal.
Internal emails dating back to July 2014, obtained by Smythe through a Subject Access Request filing and seen by DeSmog UK, confirm his online privileges were revoked following a long-running dispute between the university and Smythe concerning his use of the university name when discussing the impacts of shale gas extraction.
The emails appear to contradict the university’s previous claims that the change in Smythe’s online privileges, removed in February this year, had been the result of a “routine review of email accounts in the School of Geographical & Earth Sciences.”
Smythe argues this goes against an agreement with the university, made upon his retirement in 1998, granting him continued access to the university’s email and online journals. He also says the actions of the university are an attack on his freedom of speech.
“Accessing the scientific and academic library database online is my lifeline,” Smythe told DeSmog UK.
“The point of them cutting me off like this means that I’m in effect unable to pursue serious research anymore. They’ve really tried to kill me off academically speaking by cutting off this lifeline.”
The internal emails demonstrate that several university staff and academics, including engineering professor and member of the university court, Paul Younger, and the university’s court secretary, David Newall, had been working to distance the university from Smythe’s views on fracking for more than two years.
And as one email from Younger suggests, some of the university’s “various industrial research partners” were not happy about Smythe’s anti-fracking comments.
DeSmog UK reached out to the University of Glasgow, including to Younger and Newall, for clarification on the issue with regards to the contents of the emails.
Elizabeth Buie of the university’s communications and public affairs office, replied: “May I refer you to my previous email to you on this matter, confirming that David Smythe left the University some 18 years ago and stating that termination of his email was indeed part of a routine review carried out by the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences which covered a number of former staff members.”
Smythe believes however that the emails demonstrate this was instead the result of “a two-year campaign led by Professor Paul Younger and other senior members of the university to have me silenced.”
‘Misrepresenting the University’
According to the emails, the idea for “removing [Smythe’s] access to a University of Glasgow email address” appears to have been first suggested by Younger in a 16 July 2014 email to John Chapman, vice-president of the College of Science and Engineering, Dorothy Welch, deputy secretary to the court, and Maggie Cusack, a professor in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences.
The email, titled “Misrepresenting the University of Glasgow”, was prompted by a BBC Radio Scotland interview given by Smythe, a former chair of geophysics at the university’s geology department, where he criticised fracking.
Younger wrote: “I wish we had the wherewithal to go further, but it would not appear that the Univ [sic] statutes allow us to ‘strike off’ emeritus status from anyone claiming it, no matter the depths of turpitude to which they sink.”
In response, Welch wrote: “I have sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to David Smythe asking him not to give the impression of misrepresenting the University. I would hope that would be sufficient but we need to continue to be alert.
“We cannot easily withdraw access to UoG email [sic] 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. I’m not willing to do that just now though.
“We don’t have a procedure for withdrawing emeritus status but I have flagged to HR that we need to develop one.”
The 2014 letter, signed by court secretary Newall asks that Smythe make it clear his views “are not necessarily representative” of the university. It reads: “A number of my academic colleagues are concerned that the views you have expressed, particularly on the subject of shale gas, are not consistent with the work currently being undertaken at the University.”
A later email on 23 July 2014 from Younger, a former fracking advisor to the Scottish Government, to court secretary Newall, as well as Chapman, Welch and Cusack, reads: “Various industrial research partners have suggested an open letter to major newspapers making clear he does not speak for us.”
It does not appear, however, that any such open letter was ever published.
What followed was a protracted internal battle to stop Smythe affiliating himself with the University, including a series of articles in the national press that August, including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, where Younger criticised Smythe’s views on fracking as “pseudo-scientific scaremongering” and accused Smythe of “fraud” for allegedly misrepresenting his credentials as a chartered geology (something Smythe has since admitted was a mistake).
Smythe, 69, who now lives in the South of France, spent 10 years working as a consultant for the oil industry after he left the university.
He first became concerned about fracking when plans for shale gas exploration were announced in the Languedoc area of France where he resides. Since then, he has submitted a series of objections to fracking plans in Britain and served as an expert witness on the issue of coal bed methane near Falkirk in 2014. He also submitted evidence in 2014 arguing against Cuadrilla’s plans for shale gas exploration in Lancashire.
Commenting on the 2014 letter from the university, Smythe asserted: “I have never ‘misrepresented’ the university; on the contrary I have always made it clear that my opinions are my own.”
According to his website, Smythe hasn’t published any journal articles since 2003. In January of this year, however, he submitted a discussion paper on the environmental impacts of fracking for open review at the journal Solid Earth Discussions. Roughly three days after it was published, Smythe’s University of Glasgow online access was terminated.
Smythe’s paper was ultimately rejected by the journal due to the volume of topics covered in it. He plans to resubmit a new, more condensed version soon.
But as he argued: “The real argument to me isn’t just about fracking and whether Paul Younger is right and I’m wrong, or vice versa, it’s a more fundamental issue of freedom of speech.”
Emails dated 4 February 2016 show the final decision to deactivate Smythe’s email account was made by Newall.
One of these emails, sent by the head of the School of Geographical & Earth Sciences, Martin Lee, confirms Lee was in contact with Solid Earth Discussions regarding Smythe’s Glasgow email.
Addressed to Newall, it reads: “I have just got a message from the journal saying that Smythe’s Glasgow e-mail address is still active. Could you please investigate – I think you had spoken to IT Services last week about deactivating the e-mail.”
Newall replied: “IT Services has deactivated the email account, having received a request via HR from the School … I expect Professor Smythe will challenge this, and will argue that, as an Emeritus Professor, he has a right to an email account. But I am comfortable with the decision.”
Smythe plans to pursue legal action over the issue and says he aims to launch an online crowdfunding campaign to support the costs: “I’m arguing that I have these rights which are in perpetuity and they have no right to cut me off.”
The aim, he said, “is to get back my legal rights of access so that I can carry on doing scientific research.”
“There are other areas of research that I’d much rather be working on than studying the fine details of environmental contamination from fracking,” he said, “but I feel at the moment that I have to pursue this because it’s the right thing to do.”
“Many people write to me in desperation asking if I can help them out to fight a particular planning application. So, I feel a moral pressure to help these people as far as I can.”
Photo: Tony Webster via Wikimedia Commons