Monthly Archives: February 2016

Walking away from a research project

In 2014 I decided to abandon a research project I’d been pursuing for almost a year. That much wasted effort was ugly to contemplate. Sure, I could have viewed it as sunk costs; I am, after all, the child of an economist. But walking away also had significant opportunity costs, as I abandoned the chance to publish on a hot topic, a chance for which I had prepared carefully. Abandoning the project meant that I would have to start from scratch again, setting my research and publication calendar back a year; if I could have just gritted my teeth and powered through it would have been far better for my career. But I have a long-standing habit of prioritizing well-being over career; no walking away from that!

The project was on fracking. My collaborator (Brian Lutz, an excellent biogeochemist and lovely human being) and I carefully studied the existing literature and concluded that the environmental impacts of fracking seemed to be far less serious than those of more established energy sources, most notably coal. I was not predisposed to take a moderate position on fracking, so this conclusion deeply surprised me. The more I learned, though, the more the disparity between the actual impacts of fracking and the public conversation stood out. Why were all these awesome environmentalists screaming about fracking when the impacts of Mountain Top Removal coal mining, for example, were an order of magnitude more intense, and unmitigable to boot? Our only explanation was that what we were seeing was the geographic redistribution of the environmental injustices of energy production, and that people newly confronted with those injustices were more upset by them than by deeper, long-standing injustices far away.

It became clear that this hypothesis was going to get me into trouble almost immediately. When I began to tell people casually about my new project, their reactions were almost always shock: how could I possibly suggest that fracking was not a deep environmental evil?!? One post-doc actually yelled this, berating me through much of a 45-minute long train ride for taking such an ethically and environmentally unacceptable stance in my research. We received a review on the one paper we submitted that was unlike any I had ever received: vitriolic and accusatory. The reviewer accused of being ‘gas industry shills’ and of taking industry money without disclosing it (neither of us had any funding for the project). Brian, who had worked on fracking for several years, said that was par for the course.

I spent some time sitting with all this, trying to decide what to do. It seemed clear that we had something useful to contribute to the debate over fracking. It seemed equally clear that we could stay in the conversation only at the cost of such an onslaught of accusations of bad faith that there was absolutely no guarantee that we would be able to contribute.

In the end, I decided to walk away. Wholesale abandonment of a line of research seems like an insane decision. But academia is my second career. I do it because I love it. If it stops being enjoyable, I will go do something else. Perhaps most importantly, while I don’t mind drawing anger in a good cause, fracking is not one. I’m comfortable taking heat for tackling the ridiculous racial and gender imbalance in my field, but I have zero desire to be a punching bag for a cause I don’t actually support.

So there it is: nearly a year’s effort, gone. But I was SO much happier once I made that call. And really, that’s all the peer review I needed on this decision.