Remember that study out of The University of Texas last February that concluded there wasn’t a direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination? It caught flack for seeming to being too easy on the fracking industry by suggesting that there wasn’t a direct link between cracking shale and groundwater contamination. The study was great news for an industry fighting a PR battle over a politically-charged issue.

However, financial ties to the fracking industry were never mentioned in all of the announcements about the study, and not known until a new study put out Monday by the Public Accountability Initiative. The study’s leader, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat has significant financial ties to the fracking industry, to the tune of a couple of million dollars. From State Impact Texas:

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.

It’s hard for me to read this news because I have taken courses from Dr. Groat and value his wealth of experience. But this is damaging to himself and the University.

The purpose of research institutions is to help push the human race forward by making breakthroughs and advancements that benefit everyone, not just a select few with financial interests. At least that’s what I think.

Scientists already have a hard enough time keeping up a good reputation, with the Climategate nonsense or the Solyndra theatrics. Isn’t this news just one more data point that reinforces the ridiculous view that researchers are fabricating issues (like climate change!) in elaborate campaigns for research grants that fund the luxurious lives of tenure track professors? Give me a break. But try telling that to someone at a political rally, let alone at a School Board meeting in Texas. But I digress.

Ties to industry are common at research universities. It’s common in the engineering disciplines for research to be funded by an industry partner. That relationship is an explicit contract that the university offers some additional brainpower and expertise to overcome some technical challenge, or perform some fundamental science, and is in turn rewarded by funding several grad students for a couple of years.

But this differs because there is an appearance that financial gain was to be had. I don’t think it matters, as Dr. Groat has said, that the research was paid for with university funds. Over a million dollar in stocks constitutes a conflict of interest. What does this say for the integrity of The University of Texas and other universities and labs as research institutions? The University’s ethics policy specifically draws attention to research:

It is the policy of the University of Texas that research is conducted with integrity and free from any actual or apparent institutional or personal conflict of interest. An employee of the University who applies for grants or cooperative agreements from the federal government for research or other educational activities or who otherwise submits a proposal for sponsored research funding from any entity must insure that there is no reasonable expectation that the design, conduct, and reporting of the research will be biased by any significant financial interest of an investigator responsible for the research or other educational activity.

Shouldn’t these ties have been disclosed to the public? Where was the University's due diligence? Did they not know a prominent faculty member was pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? At the very least, Dr. Groat should have removed himself from the study.

Private industry brings a lot of knowledge, experience, and funding, all things that are useful in research. And it is reasonable to expect that leading researchers will have contacts in industry, or serve on boards or on advisory positions because of their knowledge. But where do you draw the line and distinguish between an appropriate relationship, and one that one that compromises the goal of providing unbiased research?

Update: Statement from UT Austin:

The most important asset we have as an institution is the public's trust. If that is in question, then that is something we need to address. We will identify a group of outside experts to review the Energy Institute’s report on the effects of hydraulic fracturing. We hope to have that group identified and the results back within a few weeks. We believe that the research meets our standards, but it is important to let an outside group of experts take an independent look.

Dr. Groat has been reminded of his obligations to report all outside employment per university policy. If the university had known about Dr. Groat’s board involvement, the Energy Institute would have included that information in the report.

I'll check back in on this in a couple of weeks when we hear the results of the external review.

Update #2: Welcome, Dot Earth readers!

Update #3: Welcome, Huffington Post!