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Investigation reveals TransAlta involvement in U of A research

By Matty Hume, June 15 2018 —

In late May, an article written by investigative journalist Carol Linnitt and published by the Narwhal revealed that air quality research from the University of Alberta School of Public Health was reviewed by the coal company TransAlta ahead of its publication.

The article cites a series of emails between U of A researcher Warren Kindzierski and TransAlta executives, highlighting that prior to a presentation to government officials, Kindzierski offered to remove slides and reorganize the presentation to place technical details in the appendix.

Linnitt’s article, made possible by documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, highlighted that TransAlta executives had a major role in the assigning, funding and publicizing of research from the U of A’s Kindzierski.

“We initially got wind of this story through some research being done by the Pembina Institute,” Linnitt said. “Around the time we were first made aware of this research, it was published on TransAlta’s website with the disclaimer that said that the research had actually been funded by TransAlta. During the course of our research into this initial study by Kindzierski, that funding disclaimer was actually removed from the website. That’s what really got us interested in how TransAlta had been involved in the assigning and funding of this.”

The recent article adds further information to Linnit’s ongoing investigation, which first received public attention in 2016 after it was revealed that TransAlta paid the U of A $54 thousand to research the health impacts of coal-fired power plants near Edmonton. The original article focused on corporate sponsorship agreements with universities and raised questions about transparency and accountability for institutions engaged in such relationships.

“In this case, the university received that money for a specific piece of research but then moved it through different research contracts, soft-dollar funded positions and into more broad departmental uses in a way that allowed the company to say that they had not directly funded that piece of research,” Linnitt said.

Linnitt added that that the relationship between TransAlta, the U of A and Kindzierski calls attention to a broader issue across the country.

“All of this calls into question the true independence of this research and that aspect of the story has received a lot of response from the public,” she said. “And also from other news outlets who recognize that these types of arrangements and relationships are ongoing at universities across Canada because of the funding crisis that exists across the board. That puts researchers in this position where they’re maybe compromising their principles to make sure that they have the money to keep their doors open.”

Linnitt argued that this situation is a cause for concern for Albertans, because it shows how fossil industries in the province can “leverage the reputation of these public institutions to maintain their corporate interests.”

Sixteen pages of email correspondence between Kindzierski and TransAlta obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are available here. At presstime, the documents have been viewed on the webpage more than 2,500 times.

“This is a school of public health, and they are publishing so-called independent research for private, corporate and for-profit interests,” Linnitt said. “That whole promise [of independence] seems to be really under threat in this particular instance.”

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