UT Fracking Study Comes Under Scrutiny

For the second time in as many months, a University of Texas study on an emotionally charged, politically divisive topic is under scrutiny.

In February, UT geologist Charles Groat published a study that found no direct link between hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and groundwater contamination. Now a new report by nonprofit watchdog the Public Accountability Initiative has found Groat failed to disclose that he was paid by a company that practices fracking.

Groat is on the board of Plains Exploration and Productions and holds $1.6 million in company stock. According to State Impact Texas, his total compensation from the company is close to $2 million. Groat’s supervisors at UT did not know about his industry affiliation until the University started getting questions last month from Bloomberg News, the Austin-American Statesman reported today.

The University will convene a group of outside experts to review the study, UT provost and executive vice president Steven Leslie said today.

“We believe that the research meets our standards, but it is important to let an outside group of experts take an independent look,” said Leslie. “We hope to have that group identified and the results back within a few weeks.”

The news raises big questions about the sometimes-hazy rules for how industry and academia should work together—and what defines a conflict of interest.

“It’s not at all unusual for industry to pay for academic research,” said UT mechanical engineering professor Michael Webber. “It’s a good thing for the two to cooperate. But it’s important to disclose your affiliations. I’ve done consulting work with industry, and I list it on my website and my C.V. The problem tends to go away if you disclose.”

In June, UT sociologist Mark Regnerus’ study on gay parenting sparked debate. Some critics raised eyebrows over the fact that Regnerus accepted funding from two right-wing think tanks—a funding source he fully disclosed in his study—and a blogger’s complaint about the study triggered a mandatory UT inquiry into possible flawed methodology.

UT is currently revising its conflict-of-interest policy to comply with a UT System-wide change, said Tara Doolittle, UT director of media outreach. “Essentially the change would expand which faculty and staff would need to disclose financial interests, beyond those who engage in privately funded research and those who have the authority to direct university funds,” Doolittle said.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons


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