The University of Texas (UT), Austin, is getting a hard lesson in what can go wrong if you fail to spot and disclose a potential conflict of interest. UT has been clobbered with a tough outside review, made public yesterday by Provost Steven Leslie, of blunders in a controversial study on the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, known as "fracking."
That study, released in draft form early this year by UT's Energy Institute, suggested that the environmental risks of fracking are minimal, but it turned out to have a serious flaw: No one had ever asked the principal investigator on the internal university grant—former U.S. Geological Survey chief Charles Groat—if he had a conflict of interest. It turned out that Groat was a paid board member of an energy firm that conducts fracking—sparking a controversy that has led to his departure from UT and changes in the university's conflict-of-interest practices.
When the fracking study came out in February at a meeting of AAAS (the publisher of ScienceInsider), critics charged that it was unbalanced because it appeared to downplay the technology's environmental risks. Later, a nonprofit group in Buffalo, New York, the Public Accountability Initiative, investigated and found that Groat was a paid board member of the Plains Exploration & Production Co. of Houston, Texas, which uses fracking to extract gas. Questioned about this, Groat acknowledged the industry job but said it didn't seem "relevant" to disclose because he had not written or edited any part of the fracking study.
As criticism mounted, the university commissioned an outside panel on 13 August to look into the question, "Did the process of preparing the [fracking] report follow accepted standards of professionalism for scientific work?" Three distinguished senior research managers undertook the review: former National Academy of Engineering Chair Norman Augustine (panel chair), former National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, and president emeritus of the University of Michigan James Duderstadt.
They pull no punches in their review, concluding that the Energy Institute bungled the management of potential conflicts. Although there was "no evidence of intentional misrepresentation," they write, the failure to identify Groat's industry connection was an example of "very poor judgment coupled with inattentiveness." They hand out bad grades all around, finding that, "The design, management, review and release of the study … fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work." The university's conflicts policy, they conclude, was "poorly crafted and even less well enforced." As for the quality of the report, they write, its summary, press release, and presentations "did not reflect in a balanced fashion the caveats presented in the body of the report itself."
On 30 November, the day these findings were submitted to UT, the director of the Energy Institute, former U.S. Department of Energy research chief Raymond Orbach, a member of AAAS's board, resigned. Orbach remains on UT's faculty. Groat resigned from the university in November, according to UT. As the university looks for new leaders to head the Energy Institute, Leslie says, it has withdrawn the fracking report from its Web site pending a new scientific review.
UT had begun to overhaul and expand enforcement of conflict-of-interest rules and procedures even before the controversy, Leslie tells Science Insider. That effort has gained momentum. In addition, Leslie says, UT has launched a systemwide audit of research management procedures.
Leslie says that he expected UT would be critized for the failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest. He was "quite surprised," however, that the quality of the Energy Institute's work got a bad grade. "We thought the review would find a strong research project. But that was not the case." Leslie says he has learned something from the experience: "Just how much we need to stay on alert even in the most powerful organization. You can have things happen that you do not anticipate, and we just did not anticipate this."