RESEARCH:

Colleges re-evaluate industry funding ties after shale report controversies

As scrutiny increases over the relationship between oil and gas industry funding and academic research, universities are likely to take a second look at their conflict-of-interest guidelines.

Last month, the State University of New York at Buffalo shuttered its troubled Shale Resources and Society Institute, and the University of Texas, Austin, last week conceded major faults in its February report that found little evidence of environmental damage rendered by hydraulic fracturing.

The Texas review was accompanied by a news release stating that lead researcher Charles "Chip" Groat and Energy Institute Director Raymond Orbach had resigned (EnergyWire, Dec. 10). The reviewers said the institute's research fell short of academic standards primarily because of Groat's failure to disclose that he sat on the board of Houston-based drilling firm Plains Exploration & Production Co., but also because of the institution's weak conflict-of-interest standards.

"University policy on conflicts of interest then in force ... was poorly crafted and even less well-enforced," the Texas review says.

That policy has since undergone two major changes. The first expands the rules for financial disclosure so they apply to internally funded research, not just projects undertaken on behalf of funding partners outside the university. The second broadens the rules to cover presenters, rather than just authors, of university research.

The Texas review last week reflected the university's shift toward stronger financial disclosure. While its February report contained no indication that Groat was a member of Plains' board, its review last week of that study included boxes detailing every reviewer's industry ties.

Buffalo, which had its own conflict-of-interest policies in place when its shale institute released its first and only report this year, has established a committee to work with faculty to revise its rules. The New York school's research came under fire when the nonprofit watchdog Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) noted that lead author Timothy Considine failed to fully disclose his own industry ties (EnergyWire, May 31).

Ripple effect

While it is unlikely that any other universities' shale institutes will follow in Buffalo's footsteps and close their doors altogether, PAI Director Kevin Connor said he expects to see some ripple effect from the backlash.

"The [Buffalo] story really does sort of set an example for the rest of academia: one, that you shouldn't be issuing these industry-funded studies that are really flimsy, marked by shoddy research, really just serving as industry brochures," he said. "And two, that people really become angry about that and organize effectively to stop that."

In the coming weeks and months, it is possible that other universities studying shale gas activities will revisit their research policies, said Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and an English professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Short of sending researchers into deeply buried rock formations, it may never be possible to know how chemical-laced frack fluids, injected into energy deposits to coax oil and gas to the surface, will behave beneath the ground, leaving a lot of room for fracturing's supporters and opponents to interpret findings to their advantage, Nelson said.

That gives universities studying the extraction process two options: Acknowledge uncertainties and possible biases or go the "George Bush route and never admit that you're wrong," Nelson said.

To assist university administrators in building policies to minimize conflicts of interest, Nelson this year wrote a draft set of guidelines for relationships between industry and academia. Chief among those principles is the need for universities to have sound financial disclosure rules in place and to maintain their freedom to publish whatever conclusions they reach.

Nelson also recommended putting a broad distance between industry funding and academic research. The ideal setup, he said, would be to establish a consortium to collect a portion of industry revenues from oil and gas production and distribute those funds through a grant system for use on fracturing studies. Financing research directly through fracturing profits -- as the University of Tennessee has recently proposed -- could be a dangerous game, Nelson said (EnergyWire, Dec. 4).

Bill Brown, who is overseeing the research at Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture, said the university will be carefully enforcing its conflict-of-interest policies, which include a side-by-side comparison of all faculty financial disclosure forms with all industry grants and contracts. The institute, not its industry partner, will also retain control over the materials it publishes.

"No amount of money is worth your name," Brown said.

Role of industry in research

Fracturing's prevalence in certain states, such as Texas, means partnerships between researchers and industry folks are often inevitable.

"The review committee also recognizes, and even emphasizes, that it would be unreasonable to deny the public the benefit of research conducted by institutions or individuals who are deeply immersed in a field in which geographical or other circumstances that contribute to their expertise also contrive to raise concerns over potential conflicts of interest," the Texas review says.

John Krohn, spokesman for industry-funded research group Energy in Depth, said there should be opportunities for oil and gas companies to contribute their own expertise.

"It is important that research in any industry be transparent and utilize the assistance of technical experts who are familiar with the topics being studied. Ensuring these principals are provided the highest attention results in work that increases public understanding and scientific consensus," he said. "In this vein, there is an important role for the oil and gas industry to play in ongoing research regarding any of its practices."