Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's a Fracking Conflict of Interest!

By Keith McDowell

To disclose or not to disclose! Such is the dilemma facing faculty members who pursue scholarly activity and scientific research and look to publish their findings in the public sector. And what exactly is it that they are supposed to disclose? Does private ownership of the stock in a company related to one’s area of research count? How about a mutual fund? And what about reimbursed travel expenses for service on a foundation board whose dictums and pronouncements affect public policy? Do cheap pencils, pens, calendars, knickknacks, trinkets, and T-shirts with logos given as gifts count? And why should anyone care about such activities?

No one in our modern society wants published research results to be biased, tainted, or manipulated, especially if such behavior is driven by monetary, political, or religious reasons. Otherwise, one’s own personal health could be at risk from faulty medical procedures or environmentally unsafe practices.

But how do we in the body politic know if such countervailing influences to the general welfare of society are present? How do we know if a researcher has a potential or a real “conflict of interest” between the general welfare and their private and professional gain? The rules of the game are simple. Faculty members must disclose such activities annually or when a change occurs.

Full and complete transparency at all times in the pursuit and publication of research is the mantra of our era and the only operational principle worthy of consideration. While the actual determination of a potential conflict of interest – known as COI to insiders –both before and after the fact can be tricky and couched in legal maneuvers and language, the perception of a conflict is a simple matter easily determined by the general public. If it looks like a conflict, it is as far as the public is concerned.

But all across the United States, too many university administrators and too many faculty members in particular still don’t get it. For them, privacy trumps transparency. For them, it’s a real bother and imposition to keep up with all those foundation visits, externally paid-for travel receipts, consultant checks, and board memberships – just to name a few items. And why should they have to take precious time to report them? Baloney! None of this is hard to do, takes little time, and we have to keep up with the paperwork in any case for our own private records and tax purposes. I know! I spent many years doing it.

Let’s be clear! ALL such activities by university personnel must be regularly reported in an open and transparent manner to the university and the disclosures processed by the university for a possible COI to be managed, including the curtailing of some activities. Even if determined not to be a COI, such activities should continue to be reported to satisfy the transparency principle.

But to be fair, balanced, and reasonable while hewing to the transparency principle, some have argued for and put into place thresholds for disclosing certain information. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2011 lowered “the monetary threshold at which significant financial interests require disclosure, generally from $10,000 to $5,000” according to their website.

So at NIH, you can be bought for $5,000 but not $4,999.99. What nonsense! Far too many people in modern society have no scruples and have a price tag. Setting an arbitrary threshold for disclosure of a potential conflict, no matter how small, is not viable in today’s society. There is only one threshold for disclosure that satisfies the transparency principle and that is anything above a value of zero. The public has a right to know and they demand that right, whether or not a managed COI has or will occur.

Just ask The University of Texas at Austin if you don’t believe COI is a sensitive issue. As reported in the press, Professor Charles G. Groat and his colleagues published in February of 2012 a report entitled Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development that many people consider supportive of fracking by oil and gas companies as regards any impact on the environment. At the time of release, the report was portrayed as an independent study. According to Groat, “What we’ve tried to do is separate fact from fiction.”

In due course, it was discovered and reported by the press that Professor Groat served on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Company and received $413,000 in compensation for his service in 2011. Subsequent reports indicate that Groat did not fully disclose all of these activities or his compensation to the university.

Initially, UT Austin declared that no COI occurred, only a failure to disclose, and that the report was not biased and no further action would be taken. Cary Nelson, former leader of the American Association of University Professors, reputedly declared the incident to be “a huge conflict of interest.” So who is right? Stay tuned. UT Austin has changed their corporate mind. An independent panel of experts will review the case and report back to us.

Independent of the final denouement of the UT Austin fracking case – if there ever is finality, it is symptomatic of the continuing failure of some in Academe to come fully to grips with the transparency principle in scholarly activity and research. That principle requires full and complete disclosure at all times and for all activities with a reporting threshold of anything having a value greater than zero. Nothing else will work. Nothing else can be justified to the American public. And it must be practiced with ruthless efficiency. To do otherwise is to invite condemnation from the public and exposure by the press.

Unfortunately, the UT Austin fracking report is now tainted, no matter what the review process reveals and reports. Sadly, we will never know what impact full and complete disclosure by Professor Groat before the fact and in the publication itself would have had on this report and its acceptance. Perception is reality in most cases and facts are not just facts. It’s a lesson we must all learn in our modern, fast-paced, 24-hour news cycle.

And in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not a fan of fracking, but am not convinced either way that it is a problem. My dislike is based on the sure knowledge that perfection is an illusion and that fracking will never be practiced with perfect fidelity to the best engineering principles. Josh Fox and his Gasland film should remove any delusions we might have in that regard. And furthermore, should the practice of fracking really be a part of America’s solution vector for solving our demand for energy?

One thing I am sure of. The university community must practice full disclosure and complete transparency in order to reveal possible conflicts of interest and to protect the integrity of its research. 

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