Can University of Texas Dispel Concerns About Fracking Study?

Last month, a nonprofit watchdog group revealed that prominent geologist Charles "Chip" Groat, the lead author of a report on fracking conducted by the University of Texas (UT), Austin, did not disclose financial ties to an energy company that conducts fracking. The university quickly said that Groat, former head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), should have reported that potential conflict of interest. UT officials also decided to appoint an independent panel to review the 414-page study, which had concluded that fracking was unlikely to contaminate ground water.

Today, the university announced that members of the three-person panel will be science policy heavyweights Rita Colwell, James Duderstadt, and Norman Augustine. Augustine, who will chair the panel, was CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“Norm Augustine is the man whom U.S. presidents from both parties call to help solve the biggest problems of the day. He understands the issues of scientific integrity from all angles, and his credentials are impeccable,” Steven Leslie, UT's executive vice president and provost, said in a statement.

Duderstadt was president of the University of Michigan and served on the executive committee of the U.S. National Academies. Colwell headed the National Science Foundation (NSF) and led the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. Groat is surely not a stranger to the panel, especially not to Colwell: he served as director of the USGS from 1998 to 2005 while she was at NSF.

Augustine was also a longtime board member for ConocoPhillips, which the university acknowledged in its press release. That immediately raised eyebrows over at the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) of Buffalo, New York, which had uncovered Groat's ties to the energy industry. "The independence of the panel in our mind is seriously in question," PAI’s Kevin Connor tells ScienceInsider. The group notes in a statement that Augustine is still receiving deferred compensation to the tune of some $310,000 a year. UT’s Leslie replies: "Frankly, I find it difficult to imagine that his impeccable background would be questioned in this way."

The trio has a broad charge to "review the scientific credibility of the report and to examine any related issues that the panel members believe are relevant," according to UT’s press release. The question of whether Groat's ties influenced the report is a key issue, Leslie tells ScienceInsider. The panel doesn't have a deadline, although Leslie says he expects the review would be completed in a few months. "We want them to be thorough, but not to rush." Leslie emphasized that the panel members do not have any direct ties to the university and that the university will follow their advice.

Aside from Augustine's role in the energy world, however, there's another hurdle the university may have to overcome to restore the report's reputation, according to biologist Steven Courtney, who directs the science program at RESOLVE, a company that works to end policy conflicts. Courtney, who has organized many independent review panels on contentious scientific issues, says UT’s decision to name its own review panel may not satisfy critics.

"Normally, if the government or other entity wants credibility, then a peer review is handled by an independent entity,” he writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider: “That is because the process needs to be SEEN to be transparent. UT has an interest in the outcome of the review—they want to establish the credibility of their programs, through the impartiality of the review processes. By definition, that is not something they can simply do themselves, if they select the reviewers, define the questions and the scope to be considered. There is nothing suspicious about the process they have elected, nor the reviewers they have chosen. But by handling the review themselves they do not gain the impartiality that they seek, and hence won't convince potential critics."

When asked for comment on this point, UT spokesman Gary Susswein said: "We're really not involved; the panelists will be driving the train."