Mining Professor’s Op-Ed Needs Disclosure

The chairman of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) mining engineering department wrote in a recent op-ed of his strong oppposition to a new mine safety bill (HR 2768) which is making its way through Congress.  The legislation will address long-standing health and safety hazards faced by miners such as disease-causing coal dust and silica, belt-air ventilation, flammable conveyor belts, among other things.  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.*  He claims new mandates will “serve no useful purpose” and will “only undermine the efforts of those trying to implement” the 2006 MINER Act.  That’s some tough criticism.

On closer look, I notice that neither the op-ed itself nor the professor’s byline mentions his university department’s financial connection to mining industry—an industry that also strongly opposes HR 2768.  These ties include a large financial endowment established by the mining industry, called the Mining Engineering Foundation.  The Foundation was created in 1983 with a $1 million endowment, which included a hefty donation of $500,000 from Mr. Catesby Clay, president of Kentucky River Coal.**  Interest from the fund now provides financial support to school’s mining engineering department.     

I’m all for healthy debate, and people are entitled to express their views.  More power to them if they can write well enough to have an op-ed published in a major newspaper.  However, I do have qualms about professors and scientists who broadcast their scholarly appointments, but fail to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and with news organizations that fail to require such disclosure.

I wrote previously about this issue when a group of eleven “academic experts in mine safety and health” sent a letter to the leadership of the House Education and Labor Committee urging them to withdraw this same mine safety legislation.  At that time, I respectfully suggested that these individuals follow-up their letter to the Committee with information about any potential conflicts of interest with the mining industry.  Only one forthright professor (Larry Grayson, PhD) answered the call.

In Dr. Honaker’s case, his byline states:

“Rick Honaker is the Mining Foundation Distinguished Professor and chairman of the University of Kentucky department of mining engineering.”  

I’ve since learned that Dr. Honaker’s distinguished professorship is affiliated with the Mining Engineering Foundation, (not the Mining Foundation.)  This led me to the information about the group’s financial support of Professor Honaker’s department. 

As a university employee, I understand the economic realities that compel academics to accept support from a variety of sources.  Having an industry-funded appointment does not necessarily influence a professor’s views on a subject.  Sources of funding is an important piece of information, though, and opinion makers should provide it openly. 

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Notes: 

*In the posted version of Rick Honaker PhD’s op-ed, the yellow highlighted phrases are mine (for emphasis.)

**Mr. Clay was recently honored by the Kentucky Coal Association.