A review panel that examined conflict-of-interest charges against the leader of a University of Texas at Austin study on hydraulic fracturing released a report Thursday that harshly criticized the study’s findings and the university’s ethics rules for research.
The panel called for UT to adopt “rigorous” policies governing conflicts of interest and financial disclosure for all university personnel.
The university formed the panel last summer when it came to light that the study’s leader, Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, was an industry insider. He served as a director and held stock in a company that did hydraulic fracturing.
Groat retired from his faculty position at the university last month. The director of the UT Energy Institute, Raymond Orbach, though he had no direct role in overseeing Groat’s report, resigned Monday, the university said in a statement.
The fracking study, which was presented in February at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said it found no evidence that hydraulic fracturing polluted groundwater.
With fracking, drillers use water, sand and chemicals to blast shale formations deep underground to free oil and natural gas.
The review panel said the study wasn’t “fact based,” that little scientific data was presented as part of the report, and that its conclusions were distorted as it moved through various drafts.
The study “fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work,” the panel said.
Another key problem, the panel continued, was the failure of Groat to disclose his conflict of interest, and a university policy on conflicts that was “poorly crafted and even less well enforced.”
When he participated in the fracking study, Groat, then associate director of the Energy Institute, was a paid director of Houston-based Plains Exploration and Productions Co., held shares in the company and received stock awards. In May, when the company’s proxy was sent to shareholders, he owned shares worth more than $1.58 million based on the company’s per-share price at the time.
The reviewers said Groat basically assembled a team whose white papers became the basis of the fracking study, and the papers weren’t subject “serious peer review.” In addition, the team included only one active scientist.
The panel recommended that the study be removed from the Energy Institute’s website, and a university spokeswoman said Thursday that had been done.
Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative in Buffalo, N.Y., called the 42-page report — the product of a three-month review — “damning.”
“It sheds some much-needed sunlight on the whole process of the original fracking report, and it’s not a pretty picture,” said Connor, an early critic of university’s fracking study.
But he praised UT and the review panel, saying, “They deserve a lot of credit for taking a stand on academic integrity and agreeing to follow the recommendations in the report.”
In addition to more stringent conflict-of-interest rules, the panel said the Energy Institute should demand annual disclosure of relevant financial relations of all those involved in its projects. Also, the institute should develop a rigorous quality control framework, and the role of all participants in its projects should be “thoroughly documented.”
The university said it agrees with the panel’s conclusions and will adopt its recommendations.
“We would like to address this from the standpoint of institutional trust and reliability,” University Provost Steven Leslie said Thursday.
“We want to take strong action so that the public will know they can rely on and trust this university.”
The University of Texas System adopted more stringent conflict-of-interest policies related to research that went into effect on Aug. 23.
In addition, Leslie said the university is working to put in place a “compliance audit” of personnel, but exactly what the audit will require remains under discussion, he said.
A high-level official on campus will ensure that all researchers on campus are complying with the new conflict-of-interest rules, he said.
The panel examined the ethics policies of several highly regarded organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Institutes of Health. All have policies that say manuscripts should be accompanied by clear disclosures.
The review panel was headed by Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. and a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.