When Academic Research Goes Bad

A 'misconduct investigation' decided that an industry-funded study, used by the EPA as the basis to roll back a regulation limiting the number of old engines that could be used in new truck chassis (i.e., "glider trucks"), was inaccurate.
October 26, 2018, 12pm PDT | Irvin Dawid
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On his final day in office in July, disgraced former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt accomplished one final environmental rollback—the repeal of glider provisions from the Heavy-Duty Truck Rule.

Glider trucks, which use older and often rebuilt diesel engines in new truck chassis, "had nitrogen oxide emissions 43 times higher than newer trucks and particulate matter emissions 55 times higher" in a 2017 EPA study, according to Transport Topics. The Obama-era rule caps at 300 the number of gliders each manufacturer can build annually.

Regrettably, faulty academic research completed last year by Tennessee Technological University, an accredited public university located in Cookeville, Tenn., helped enable that rollback, which fortunately was reversed, if only temporarily, three weeks later by Pruitt's successor, Andrew Wheeler, after environmental groups and state attorneys general sued the EPA

The Tennessee university's 2017 study [pdf], funded by Fitzgerald Glider Kits of Crossville, Tenn., the nation's largest glider kit assembler and a proponent of repealing the caps, "has been at the center of a fight over the EPA’s attempts to loosen production limits on the trucks," report Joe Howard and Eric Miller report for Transport Topics. 

The EPA cited the study in the Nov. 16, 2017, Federal Registrar [pdf] to show that emissions would be similar to those from original equipment manufacturer (OEM) ‘certified’ engines.

In support, the petitioners included as an exhibit to their petition a letter from the President of the Tennessee Technological University (‘‘Tennessee Tech’’), which described a study recently conducted by Tennessee Tech.

The petitioners maintained that the results of the study ‘‘showed that remanufactured engines from model years between 2002 and 2007 performed roughly on par with OEM ‘certified’ engines,’’ and ‘‘in some instances even out-performed the OEM engines.’’ 

The source article contains the embedded letter, dated Oct. 23, conveying the findings of a "misconduct investigation" conducted by the university, signed by Trudy Harper, vice chair of the Tennessee Tech Board of Trustees, which "said that the school’s field-testing procedures for the research were 'not sufficient to justify comparisons with EPA emissions standards,'” add Howard and Miller.

Harper further stated that a review of the school’s supporting data, “does not support the statement” that the rebuilt engines performed as well as “OEM ‘certified’ engines.”

The letter was sent to Tommy Fitzgerald, the CEO of Fitzgerald Glider Kits, EPA’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, and Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.).

Red flags on academic research raised earlier by close cooperation with the funding company

"The contact between Tennessee Technological University researchers and Fitzgerald Glider Kits...raises ethical flags about the study at the center of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to roll back the Obama-era regulation," reported Abby Smith for Bloomberg Energy in June.

Sponsored research like the study at issue isn’t unusual, but universities typically take a strong stance on academic freedom, research ethics experts said.

"TTU faculty questioned the original study, and in particular, the relationship between Fitzgerald and TTU, calling it a conflict of interest," reports Brian Straight, managing editor of Freight Waves, on Oct. 25. Straight goes to indicate the two ways that Vice Chair Harper said the study's conclusion was "inaccurate."

Future of rule uncertain

Republican congress members are still trying to repeal the quota. In addition to environmental groups and the 16 state attorneys general and the chief legal officer of the District of Columbia that oppose the rollback, a trucking industry coalition, which includes manufacturers, suppliers, and the American Trucking Associations, also want to see the Obama rule left in place.

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Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 in Transport Topics
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