Finally, a major university recognized a major bias in its science. An independent review by science administrators found that the head of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas received money from a firm involved in hydraulic fracturing for shale gas prior to releasing a report on its potential environmental impacts. After the review was recently made public, the paper was finally withdrawn, and the head of the Energy Institute accepted full responsibility and resigned.
Today, public education is under familiar economic pressures to conform to narrow standards and offer subjective knowledge. Interest groups are clamoring to insert their agenda’s into both the classroom and scientific studies. Steps such as those taken by the University of Texas at Austin might serve as a guideline for how ethical issues in our public institutions can be addressed justly without compromising the public’s trust.
Damning Review of Gas Study Prompts a Shakeup at the University of TexasBy ANDREW C. REVKIN
The University of Texas said today that it has accepted the findings of a damning independent review of the preparation of a report on potential impacts of shale gas drilling by the school’s Energy Institute. The school said it will undertake six recommended actions, the most significant being the withdrawal of papers from the Energy Institute’s Web site related to the report until they are submitted for fresh expert review.
In its news release, the university said that the lead investigator, Professor Chip Groat, retired last month and the institute’s director, Raymond Orbach, resigned. [*There's more from the StateImpact Texas reporting projecthere.]
The independent review, by a trio of noted science administrators and scholars, expressly did not examine the quality of the study’s findings, but focused on issues related to its creation — particularly what it deemed to be serious problems with undisclosed financial interests (earlier Dot Earth coverage is here). [Dec. 7, 4:37 p.m. | Update | Although the authors wrote that they were not tasked with evaluating the contents, a Dot Earth reader, "JD," pointed to a searing section of the summary (page 14) that I missed in my quick scan late yesterday; see the bottom of this post for the excerpt.]
Click here to read or download the full report: “A review of the processes of preparation and distribution of the report “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.”
Here’s the section of the report recommending the withdrawal of the gas study, followed by the text of the news release:
Because of the inadequacies herein cited, publications resulting from the Energy Institute’s project on shale gas fracturing currently displayed on the Energy Institute’s website should be withdrawn and the document “Separating Fact from Fiction in Shale Gas Development,” given its basis in the above, should not be further distributed at this time. Authors of the white papers should be allowed sufficient time and opportunity to finish their work, preparing their papers for submission for independent review by a broad panel of independent scientists and policy experts. Even if not published in a professional journal this approach is deemed appropriate when dealing with highly contentious issues. The summary paper should be redrafted to accurately reflect these revised white papers, with strong involvement from the Senior Contributors.
Here’s an excerpt from the news release:
The University of Texas at Austin recently received and agreed with the findings of an independent panel of national experts that reviewed the preparation and distribution of a 2012 UT Energy Institute report on Shale Gas Development, on which Professor Charles Groat served as principal investigator. The independent review was not commissioned to assess the merits or liabilities of hydraulic fracturing but the process through which the report was prepared and distributed.
It is also important to note that the content of the report — a synthesis of various white papers written about hydraulic fracturing — was not under review for validation or criticism and that the panel “found no evidence of intentional misrepresentation” by the authors.
The panel cited failures and inadequacies in several procedural areas and made six recommendations, all of which will be implemented by UT Austin. As a result of these findings, The University of Texas at Austin will work with the UT System Administration to conduct a compliance review for the purposes of improving internal procedures as they relate to the university’s conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and financial and relationship disclosures. [Read the rest.]
If credibility is the goal, transparency is vital in research involving related industries.
See the fate of the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo earlier this year for another case study in getting this wrong.
[*Here's the excerpt from the summary noted above:
The report summary failed to reflect either the tentative nature of the conclusions reached in the white papers or the often strong caveats conveyed by their individual authors. The Review Committee viewed the summary document, subsequent media releases, and oral presentations to be inappropriately selective in the use of material from the white papers such that they seemed to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis and largely resulted from media bias—hence requiring no significant modification in the current regulatory and enforcement regimes. This apparent distortion of the substance of the white papers became increasingly evident as the project moved through the stages of drafting the summary, media releases, and public presentations.]
[* Asterisks mark material added after publication.]