Prestigious “Tar” Sands Papers Not Truly Peer-reviewed

Was science skewed for anti-tar sands campaign goals?
Mainstream journalists are fawning all over Dr. David Schindler for his ‘snapshot’ review of the “tar” sands/oil sands monitoring in light of Canada’s new federal-provincial monitoring plan. The Kelly/Schindler papers were published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). They set off a firestorm of international anti-oil sands publicity as they suggested a link between oil sands activity and cancer downstream.

Did any journalists ever look closely at the now famous PNAS papers of Kelly/Schindler et al, or wonder how someone who hadn’t worked in the oil sands in 20 years suddenly became so interested?

“Contributed”.

That’s the tiny word at the top of the PNAS papers of Kelly/Schindler. It’s a special category that means that the National Academy of Sciences member, in this case Dr. Schindler, is allowed to ‘contribute’ 4 articles a year as long as he is part of the research design. In this category the stringent PNAS peer-review process is waived.

The ‘Contributed’ category is open to NAS members only. It requires that two scientists of the author’s choice review the paper. The article could be published within weeks along with a pre-press publicity campaign which was part of the package.

PNAS peer reviews are far more stringent – “The standard mode of transmitting manuscripts is for authors to use Direct Submission. Authors must recommend three appropriate Editorial Board members, three NAS members who are expert in the paper’s scientific area, and five qualified reviewers. The Board may choose someone who is or is not on that list or may reject the paper without further review.”

The Royal Society of Canada did not find any correlation between the Schindler/Kelly paper’s supporting documentation and a cancer link. They also said of the Schindler/Kelly research that “‘it is very unusual to draw a scientific conclusion based on one sample.”

The PNAS is supposed to filter out conflicts of interest – yet the Schindler/Kelly research is funded by TIDES – an organization which is running a very public anti-“tar sands” campaign.

There are only a handful of Canadian scientists who are members of the US National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Schindler, a dual American/Canadian citizen, is about the only one with any remote connection to environmental issues relevant to the oil sands.

Schindler’s anti-oil sands, TIDES-funded papers now feature almost alone in the PNAS as oil sands topics. Yet this is an acknowledged repository of qualitative peer-reviewed science world-wide. It was a coup for the anti-oil sands eco-activists, and a failing of investigative journalism.

The many thousands of scientific and peer-reviewed papers that refute anti ‘tar sands’ tirades, done by Canadian oil sands experts, will never see the light of day on the PNAS. None of those scientists who actually work in the oil sands every day are members of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Environmental engineers say that if you did the Kelly/Schindler experiment in an urban environment, there would be similar or greater toxic metals found in spring run-off water. Urban environments are paved. There is less natural filtration.

Ironically, eco-activists are advocating for world-class monitoring of the Athabasca River in the far north of Canada, while their local spring run-off carries far more pollutants from city streets.

Schindler’s team spent a handful of days work in the field compared to the real oil sands experts who are out there everyday, and have been for about the past 50 years. Most of the credibility of the Schindler/Kelly papers relied on the assumption that the studies had been stringently peer reviewed through the PNAS Direct Submission method.

It appears this is not the case.

These are my opinions based on available research materials noted in the links. Formerly published on Yahoo Contributor.

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