Emeritus Prof David Smythe’s problem with Glasgow University

If you recall, we said recently that Cumbria owed a great debt of gratitude to Professor David Smythe who voluntarily gave his time and expertise to ensure that the MRWS process wasn’t a one-sided PR exercise. In view of his continuing problem with Glasgow University (see the previous post),  we have written to the University expressing our concern at what appears to be an attempt to stifle his research. Eddie Martin in his capacity as a past leader of Cumbria County Council has also written to them:


David Newall
Secretary of Court,
R444 Level 4,
Court Office,
Main Building,
G12 8QQ

27th July 2016

Dear Mr Newall

Re: Emeritus Professor David Smythe

By way of background, Cumbria Trust is a non-governmental organisation which includes amongst its supporters senior local politicians, business leaders, members of both Houses of Parliament, a Nobel co-laureate, academics and lawyers, as well as many members of public.  It was established in 2013 in response to the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) process which had been searching for a potential geological disposal site for nuclear waste.

We were very concerned to hear of the University of Glasgow’s decision to remove Emeritus Professor David Smythe’s access to the online academic database.  Without David’s extensive research, and that of Professor Stuart Haszeldine, the process would have been entirely one-sided.  Several million pounds was made available for brochures, full page newspaper advertising and public meetings, all to convince the Cumbrian public that the process should proceed.  Until David became involved, the public were simply in no position to question those put forward as experts.

David made all of his work available online, his public meetings were open to all, and open to challenge.  He provided a much needed balance to a rather slick PR operation.  So the news that the University of Glasgow have in effect silenced him is very disturbing.  There are very few members of the scientific community who give their time freely and do so much work purely out of principle.  If the university disagree with views which he has put forward then it should openly challenge them, rather than seek to stifle them.

Cumbria Trust and its predecessor organisations have always worked on the principle that open debate is fundamental to good decision-making.  When we have held public meetings, we have invited those who hold the opposite view, including the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, to share the stage and debate with us.  This may not always be comfortable or predictable, but it does allow the public to hear both sides and to make up their own mind.

David’s work was so thorough that it resulted in the geologist employed by the MRWS process, Dr Jeremy Dearlove, admitting publicly that the project had so little chance of success in Cumbria that no commercial operation would continue with it.  This revelation was of such importance that it influenced the decision by Cumbria County Council to halt the process.

Cumbria Trust depends upon the work of experts such as Emeritus Professor David Smythe, and we ask that you reconsider your decision to remove his access to the academic database.

Yours sincerely

Cumbria Trust


*            *           *


27th July, 2016

David Newall
Secretary of Court,
R444 Level 4, Court Office,
Main Building,
Glasgow G12 8QQ


Dear Mr Newall

Re Emeritus Professor David Smythe

I am writing to you as the retired Leader of Cumbria County Council. The task fell to me and my cross-party cabinet to determine whether the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (MRWS) partnership should be allowed to continue its search in Cumbria. There was no shortage of information and no shortage of people willing to share their opinions.  Political leaders, including Ministers and Secretaries of State beat a path to our door.  We met with our international counterparts, visited existing nuclear waste facilities abroad, and were reassured by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that Cumbria was a promising location and would benefit greatly should we proceed.

When we examined the MRWS process in greater detail, it clearly was an immensely complex project but it appeared to have the potential to deliver a safe burial site if such a suitable site was to be volunteered.  You could imagine that with perhaps a dozen volunteers, MRWS may well have worked perfectly in weeding out the less suitable sites in order to concentrate on the more promising ones.  However, in practice just one small area volunteered and that created a difficulty for me and for my colleagues in the Cabinet – were we being encouraged to continue because Cumbria’s geology appeared genuinely promising, or simply because there were no other options?  How were we as political leaders, but not expert geologists, supposed to decide?   Should we trust the experts put forward by DECC and the NDA to advise impartially?  Of course we were not the only ones to face this dilemma – the general public were in exactly the same position.

When two independent experts, Emeritus Professor David Smythe and Professor Stuart Haszeldine decided to speak publicly on this issue, it transformed the process.  Now there was a genuine two-sided and robust debate, and while many of us may not have understood every detail of the scientific argument, the very presence of this public debate between experts was quite revolutionary.  Their willingness to be questioned and to submit their research to expert, forensic scrutiny changed the process entirely.  The tough questions that had to be asked were now being asked, and it was notable how these were largely going unanswered by NDA and other departments of government.

However, I was immensely dismayed, even horrified, to hear that the University of Glasgow has now withdrawn Professor Smythe’s access to the academic database.  If you or his contemporaries disagree with his position surely a coherent and scientific rebuttal would be the correct response.  I do understand that fracking is as contentious as nuclear waste burial, but what the public needs is open and honest debate between experts. Professor Smythe’s contribution to the debate in Cumbria has been quite invaluable, and I am deeply troubled by the idea that next time such a public debate happens, it will be immeasurably weaker by his access to academic information being denied.  These public debates, whether on fracking, disposal of nuclear waste or something else, depend on public trust and scientific integrity.  If the public see independent voices being silenced rather than rebutted, that trust will disappear.  I must implore you to reconsider and reverse your decision.

Yours sincerely,

Eddie Martin

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