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Independent review committee reaches conclusion on the ethically ambiguous UT Austin shale gas report

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Today The University of Texas at Austin has announced the findings of the independent review committee that was investigating the ethically ambiguous fracking report led by Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat and the UT Energy Institute in February 2012. It was discovered back in July 2012 that Dr. Groat had a financial interest in the outcome of the study. Quoting from State Impact in my initial post on the topic:

Groat, a former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey and professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, also sits on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company, a Houston-based company that conducts drilling and fracking in Texas and other parts of the country. According to the new report (and a review of the company’s financial reports by Bloomberg) Groat received more than $400,000 from the drilling company last year alone, more than double his salary at the University. And one of the shales examined in Groat’s fracking study is currently being drilled by the company, the report says.

Since 2007, Groat has received over $1.5 million in cash and stock awards from the company, and he currently holds over $1.6 million in company stock, according to the PAI report.

The study was carried out by three independent reviewers from industry and academia. The committee didn’t focus on the merits of hydraulic fracturing, focusing instead on the process of the report and concluding that they “found no evidence of intentional misrepresentation”. The report did find, however, that the study “fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work” and recommends withdrawing the study:

Because of the inadequacies herein cited, publications resulting from the Energy Institute’s project on shale gas fracturing currently displayed on the Energy Institute’s website should be withdrawn and the document “Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development,” given its basis in the above, should not be further distributed at this time. Authors of the white papers should be allowed sufficient time and opportunity to finish their work, preparing their papers for submission for independent review by a broad panel of independent scientists and policy experts. Even if not published in a professional journal this approach is deemed appropriate when dealing with highly contentious issues. The summary paper should be redrafted to accurately reflect these revised white papers, with strong involvement from the Senior Contributors.

You can read the findings here. My original post on it can be found here. I’ve copied the official UT announcement below.

The question of how close can researchers and industry be is still fuzzy though. I’ll leave that topic for another post!

Contacts: Gary Susswein, Director of Media Relations, and Tara Doolittle, Director of Media Outreach, 512-471-3151.

Date: December 6

University of Texas Accepts Findings on Shale Gas Development Report

PDF of the panel’s report: A Review of the Processes of Preparation and Distribution of the Report “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development”

Statement from The University of Texas System:

The University of Texas at Austin recently received and agreed with the findings of an independent panel of national experts that reviewed the preparation and distribution of a 2012 UT Energy Institute report on Shale Gas Development, on which Professor Charles Groat served as principal investigator. The independent review was not commissioned to assess the merits or liabilities of hydraulic fracturing but the process through which the report was prepared and distributed.

It is also important to note that the content of the report — a synthesis of various white papers written about hydraulic fracturing — was not under review for validation or criticism and that the panel “found no evidence of intentional misrepresentation” by the authors.

The panel cited failures and inadequacies in several procedural areas and made six recommendations, all of which will be implemented by UT Austin. As a result of these findings, The University of Texas at Austin will work with the UT System Administration to conduct a compliance review for the purposes of improving internal procedures as they relate to the university’s conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and financial and relationship disclosures.

In 2012, The University of Texas System and Board of Regents enhanced policies by revising conflicts rules, including reporting and management of financial conflicts of interest in research and disclosure and approvals for compensated outside work and for outside board service of faculty and administrative and professional staff at the UT System’s nine universities and six health institutions. These Rules were enhanced to position UT institutions to have the highest ethical standards and levels of transparency in higher education.

The public trust in the integrity of UT Austin’s research has always been of highest importance to the institution. It is essential that the university’s policies, leadership culture and compliance systems work more diligently to confirm and reinforce the public’s trust in the integrity of its research. The University of Texas is proud to be one of the nation’s top research universities, and it will continue to work to enhance its numerous collaborations with individuals and companies in the private sector. It is through these generous individuals and entities that the university is able to advance the frontiers of knowledge, positively impact society, and serve the greater public good.

Industry sponsored research is among the most important activities undertaken by top tier institutions, and it is highly regarded and essential to our nation’s competitiveness and safety.

The university and the Board of Regents embrace business collaborations and investments in university research, and they aspire to be a national model with public/private partnerships. Therefore they also aspire to be a national leader in systems oversight, compliance and internal safeguards to ensure public trust, integrity of our institutions, and integrity of the research produced.

The University of Texas at Austin moved swiftly to commission the independent review when it became aware of a potential undisclosed conflict and has begun to immediately implement the reviewers’ recommendations. Last month, Dr. Groat retired from his faculty position at UT Austin, and Energy Institute Director Raymond Orbach resigned. Dr. Orbach had no direct role in overseeing Dr. Groat’s report. A search is underway to recruit new leadership at the Institute.

The University of Texas at Austin and its administration, the University of Texas System and the Board of Regents take the report of this independent panel very seriously. The board, chancellor, and UT Austin president are studying the report and its recommendations carefully to determine what additional measures might be taken to further mitigate the possibility of an incident like this occurring again.

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David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sjn 2:59 am 12/7/2012

    We have a highly contentious social policy issue – the safety of hydraulic fracking and the appropriate regulatory environment. The lead investigator at a public university does not disclose major financial conflicts of interest in the preparation of a report on this subject.

    This is labelled ethically “ambiguous”?????????????

    The only thing ambiguous is how far has UT Austin abandoned its responsibility to be a publicly funded source of expertise that can be counted on to be independent of or minimally at least transparent regarding such conflicts.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 10:15 am 12/7/2012

    I agree with sjn. As I understand, similar actions carried out in a publicly held corporation would typically be grounds for dismissal, if not criminal prosecution.

    Link to this
  3. 3. bongobimbo 2:56 pm 12/7/2012

    jtdawer: You’ve gotta be kidding! They’d get a bonus and a promotion in most publicly held corporations. The richest stockholders would LOVE them.

    Where have you worked?

    Link to this

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