The chairman of theÂ University of Kentucky’s (UK) mining engineering departmentÂ wrote in a recent op-ed of hisÂ strong oppposition to a new mine safety bill (HR 2768) which is making its way through Congress.Â The legislation will address long-standing health and safety hazards faced by miners such asÂ disease-causing coal dust and silica, belt-air ventilation, flammable conveyor belts, among other things.Â In “New Mining Bill Premature,” printed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Professor Rick Honaker says it is “incomprehensible” that Congress is attempting to place new safety requirements on coal operators.*Â He claims new mandates will “serve no useful purpose” and will “only undermine the efforts of those trying to implement” the 2006 MINER Act.Â That’s some tough criticism.
On closer look, I notice that neither the op-ed itself norÂ the professor’s byline mentions his universityÂ department’s financial connectionÂ to mining industry—an industry that also strongly opposes HR 2768.Â These ties include a large financial endowmentÂ established byÂ the mining industry, called theÂ Mining Engineering Foundation.Â TheÂ FoundationÂ was createdÂ inÂ 1983Â with a $1 million endowment, which included a hefty donation ofÂ $500,000 from Mr. Catesby Clay, president of Kentucky River Coal.**Â Interest from the fund now provides financial support to school’s mining engineering department.Â Â Â Â Â
I’m all for healthy debate, and people are entitled to express theirÂ views.Â Â More power to them if they can write well enough to have an op-ed published in a major newspaper.Â Â However, I do have qualmsÂ about professors andÂ scientists whoÂ broadcast their scholarlyÂ appointments, butÂ fail to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and with news organizations that fail to require such disclosure.
I wrote previouslyÂ about this issue when a group of eleven “academic experts in mine safety and healthâ sent a letter to the leadership of the House Education and Labor Committee urging them to withdrawÂ this same mine safety legislation.Â At that time, I respectfully suggested that theseÂ individuals follow-up their letter to the Committee with information about anyÂ potentialÂ conflicts of interest with the mining industry.Â Only one forthright professor (Larry Grayson, PhD) answered the call.
In Dr. Honaker’s case, his bylineÂ states:
“Rick Honaker is the Mining Foundation Distinguished Professor and chairman of the University of Kentucky department of miningÂ engineering.”Â Â
I’ve since learned that Dr. Honaker’sÂ distinguished professorship is affiliated with the Mining Engineering Foundation, (not the Mining Foundation.)Â This led meÂ to the information about the group’s financial support of Professor Honaker’s department.Â
As a university employee, I understand the economic realities that compel academics to accept support from a variety of sources.Â Â Having an industry-funded appointment does not necessarily influence a professor’s views on a subject.Â Sources of fundingÂ isÂ an important piece of information, though, andÂ opinion makers should provideÂ it openly.Â
*In theÂ posted version of Rick Honaker PhD’s op-ed, theÂ yellow highlightedÂ phrases are mine (for emphasis.)
**Mr. Clay was recently honored by the Kentucky Coal Association.Â