U of A says air quality research reviewed by coal producer prior to publication follows guidelines

Emails show a researcher seeking input from coal producer TransAlta on presenting data

An air pollution study from the School of Public Health came under criticism for being reviewed by a coal company prior to publication, but the U of A’s research services office claims the work followed university guidelines.

The validity of Warren Kindzierski’s 2015 study describing coal-fired power plant emissions as safe for Edmontonians was challenged by The Narwhal after they showed that the research was funded, reviewed, and published by TransAlta, a coal power corporation. However, Lorraine Deydey, director of the U of A’s research services office, said the university has policies in place to ensure research integrity and that the sharing of findings with industry partners is typical.

“Almost all funders require some form of [progress] report,” Deydey said. “[But] industry can’t change the results or the interpretation of the results.”

Carol Linnitt, managing editor of The Narwhal and author of the investigation, said the “high-level of engagement” between Kindzierski and TransAlta puts into question the “independence, validity, and credibility” of the research produced.

In contracts obtained by The Narwhal, TransAlta provided $54,000 to the U of A in August 2015 to support research into coal pollution and emissions in the Edmonton airshed. TransAlta later claims while the money was provided to the U of A, it was ultimately not used to fund Kindzierski’s work.

Kindzierski’s research refutes a study by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) which found Edmonton’s air particulate matter (PM2.5) rising 25 per cent higher than Toronto’s in 2010 and on several occasions exceeding the Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards.

PM2.5s are particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that when breathed in, can affect respiratory and cardiovascular health.

The research also argues that coal-fired power plants contribute only a minimal amount of Edmonton’s PM2.5 and that the rise observed in 2010 was due to an upgrade of monitoring equipment in 2009 which captured particulate matter not previously detected by the older equipment.

TransAlta Staff Provided Advice to Kindzierski

Emails obtained by The Narwhal showed TransAlta staff advising Kindzierski on how to present his data to government officials.

TransAlta’s director of sustainable development, Oliver Bussler, suggested Kindzierski emphasize in his presentation to government officials that coal-fired power plants are not the main source of PM2.5 emissions.

“I want to reiterate that it is definitely not my intention to suggest what you should say. The study is very much your work and independent,” Bussler wrote to Kindzierski. “I do however think it is important that how we decided [sic] to relay the information should consider the audience.”

“Since my colleagues are more familiar with the policy maker audience to whom you will be presenting, I’m going to see if they have any final comments on the materials,” Bussler wrote to Kindzierski.

Kindzierski offered to remove slides related to the 2015 CAPE study in his presentation for government officials but Bussler advised Kindzierski to keep the slides in.

U of A’s School of Public Health declined all media requests made by The Gateway but provided a statement saying that because the research was contracted by TransAlta, “Kindzierski was obligated to present his findings to TransAlta for preview prior to publication.”

TransAlta also declined to comment.

Linnitt said the discussion between Kindzierski and TransAlta executives on how to highlight data to protect industry interests illustrates “a close ongoing relationship” between the two that may introduce bias in the research.

“Many who look at this particular instance find it troubling and worrisome that there’s such a direct line of influence, communication, and in-depth level of direction coming from corporate interest,” she said.

While TransAlta could provide suggestions to Kindzierski, Dedey said the U of A has guidelines to ensure that publication decisions are ultimately decided by the researcher and not the industry partner.

“We have procedures that basically says publication is expected, in other words, there is no secret research,” Deydey said. “And further, the sponsor cannot dictate what is to be contained in the publication.”

However, Linnitt said the paper was published only on TransAlta’s website and not in any peer-reviewed journal, which places the validity of the work into question.

“We in the academic community and journalistic community rely heavily on the peer review process to protect that independence and credibility of information,” Linnitt said.

TransAlta Funded U of A Health Research Used to Fight Coal Phase Out

Kindzierski’s research was also criticized by The Narwhal after it was used by TransAlta in October 2015 to lobby the Alberta government against a complete phase-out of coal pollution.

TransAlta mines approximately eight million tonnes of coal in Alberta each year to fuel their coal-fired power plants. Under Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan, the province aims to phase out coal use by 2030 in favour of clean energy production.

TransAlta’s submission to Alberta’s Climate Change Advisory Panel, based on Kindzierski’s findings, argues that airshed impact from coal-fired power generation is “minimal” and that claims suggesting coal-fired generators are a major contributor to air pollution are “unsubstantiated.”  

While Kindzierski’s research resulted in data supporting TransAlta’s goals, Deydey said the research results would have been published even if they were in opposition.

“Whenever we review research contracts, and it doesn’t matter if it’s from industry, government, or non-profit, we [ask] ‘is the researcher able to publish,’” Deydey said. “If that result had been contrary to TransAlta’s interest, there would be nothing stopping environmental groups [from using it]. Anybody can use it. It’s out in the public, that’s what publication is.”

Industry-Funded Research at the U of A

Industry sponsorship provides approximately $33.3 million in research funding to the university each year and occupies 11 per cent of total research contributions. Deydey said all industry research proposals are vetted thoroughly by university members including department chairs, faculty deans, and the research services office.

All funding is directed to the university and is managed through a trust fund, for which researchers may utilize money only for work agreed upon by the industry partner.

Deydey said industry proposals that do not end in research publication are rejected, however, publication can be delayed in instances where an industry partner may require time to secure rights to newly developed intellectual property.

“We have turned away contracts that do not meet university policies and procedures,” Deydey said. “For example, a company wanted to keep research results confidential and we basically said no, we would not enter into it.”

However, for Linnitt the ties between TransAlta and Kindzierski raises questions about how industry funding can influence academic research. She’s worried there may be other similar cases that have yet to reach the public eye.

“Some people might think industry should pay for research, and I agree,” Linnitt said. “But I think many people also think that there is a more robust wall separating researchers and the work that they do from corporations, and in this particular instance, what we saw was that there was no wall at all.”

Calvin Chan

Calvin Chan is a cell biology student with a keen interest in science writing.

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