Hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking', a technology that revolutionized the natural-gas industry, has been surrounded by controversy in recent years. So, when environmental experts at the University of Texas at Austin produced a report in February that gave the technique a fairly clean bill of health, they received widespread news coverage, including in the pages of Nature (see Nature 482, 445; 2012). The study was billed as an independent analysis. Yet last week it emerged that its lead author is a well-paid board member of an energy company that is actively involved in fracking.
The failure to declare this involvement was an unfortunate mistake to make, not least because the man who made it is a respected senior scientist who headed the US Geological Survey under US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and is therefore experienced enough to understand the role that politics and perception have in sensitive issues such as energy development. Yet Charles 'Chip' Groat, associate director of the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute, failed to disclose that he holds a significant number of shares in the Houston-based Plains Exploration & Production Company, and that he earned more than US$400,000 from the company last year. In a 23 July statement to Bloomberg news, he said that disclosing his position on the board “would not have served any meaningful purpose relevant to this study”.
Groat says that his position on the board did not affect the outcome of the study and that he did not interfere with the findings of his colleagues. The study found no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking, which pumps fluid into the ground at high pressure to fracture geological formations and release natural gas or oil. The technology has been in use for decades, and practised properly, the report suggested, it is safe and poses little risk to the environment.
This over-arching conclusion seems reasonable in view of what we know today, although scientists continue to sift through contradictory evidence. And Groat's explanation of his role also sounds plausible — but that is all the more reason for him to have openly disclosed his ties to the industry.
After the link was revealed by the Public Accountability Initiative, a non-profit watchdog in Buffalo, New York, university officials announced plans to review the study. But even if the review exonerates the panel and endorses its findings, it is unlikely to remove the taint of scandal. Rather than cutting through the confusion on fracking, the report is likely to contribute to it.
Experts in many fields bounce between academia, government and industry during their careers. Universities could not exclude people who have industry connections from their ranks, nor would they want to. The same goes for government. There is also nothing inherently wrong with universities accepting donations from industry to conduct studies, as long as the proper protections are put in place. The key is transparency, because that is the basis for trust between institutions and the wider public, which is especially important when people are buffeted by confusing, contradictory and inflammatory information. What the public needs, and what scientists must deliver, is reliable information that is honest about both its methods and its inevitable biases. What it needs is full disclosure.