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Saturday, March 16, 2013
Christina Nuckols’ column on Virginia Tech’s scientific research and evaluation of the Southside uranium deposit, “Tech’s ties to uranium cash raise questions,” March 10, itself raises questions. I am concerned the innuendo of the headline and other aspects of the column imply a bias on the part of the university or its scientists.
It is ironic that this column appeared during Sunshine Week, an effort by statewide media to focus attention on government transparency. This is based on the belief that effective government follows open access to information.
Another form of transparency, the open exchange of information and ideas, undergirds scientific inquiry. Researchers believe that the truth is known only when information is widely shared and generally accepted by peers.
The latter informs why Tech scientists came to be involved with the analysis and site characterization of Coles Hill uranium deposit. Virginia Uranium Inc. could easily have hired professional consultants to do similar work. It could have controlled the studies and the ultimate release of information.
As a research university and a state agency, our scientists’ work is conducted out in the open and freely accessible to all. The work is controlled by the scientific teams, who all adhere to strict professional standards. Much of their work was published in refereed academic journals, which use blind peer review to ensure objectivity. Neither do the reviewers know the authors nor do the authors know the reviewers.
I am also troubled by the implication that sponsored research funded by an organization leads to bias on the part of academic researchers. The very nature of academic research, as noted above, leads to open inquiry and free exchange of ideas. Sponsoring agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and myriad other government agencies could be called into question.
Who else would pay for this work if not Virginia Uranium? Hopefully, not the taxpayer.
To an extent, the column conveys the nature of sponsored scientific research at universities. Much of it is conducted by research scientists working on advanced degrees and under guidance of one or more senior academics. In our case, one scientist, Robert Bodnar, was painted with the broad brush of nefarious inference in the Times column: “The resulting theses and dissertations identify funding sources, but Bodnar has been less conscientious about explaining his connection to the company as he became more involved in the political debate over the proposed mine.”
Bodnar and several other professors have simply conducted or overseen the research of fellow scientists or graduate students. He has not been a consultant for Virginia Uranium nor personally benefitted from the research efforts. Still, he and other scientists are allowed to have an opinion. We expect scientists to have opinions — but based on rational analysis of facts.
(Harry Truman once vowed to hire only one-armed economists. He lamented that they always followed an opinion with the retort, “but on the other hand . . . .”)
In the case of the Coles Hill uranium deposit and whether the ore can be safely extracted, most believe the science is not yet complete. Interestingly, The Roanoke Times already has opined and taken a position. See, “Risks are too great to lift uranium moratorium,” Dec. 09, 2012.
Finally, in a column that seemingly questions the university’s objectivity in conducting scientific research, the mention of Tech’s possible addition of a nuclear engineering degree intimates more innuendo — as if accepting monies to conduct research would somehow influence the need to add a degree program.
Nuclear power has been in a new ascendance for more than a decade. Our college of engineering added a nuclear engineering minor and had been considering a full degree long before other university scientists began working on the Coles Hill deposit. There is ample demand for nuclear engineers in many sectors of the economy. The university is right to respond to the market.
The Roanoke Times, fittingly as the largest newspaper in western Virginia, has provided ample and excellent coverage of the public policy considerations of Southside uranium mining. We believe it also entirely appropriate that Virginia Tech, the commonwealth’s largest research university, have leadership in conducting the scientific analysis of this important issue for public policy makers.
If the commonwealth’s land-grant university does not undertake this task, who should?
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