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Is UT's New Conflict of Interest Policy Too Broad?

KUT News

Some professors at the University of Texas are raising concerns over the university’s new conflict of interest policy.

UT put the the new policy into place in August 2012.  It requires faculty to disclose their financial information and the financial information of their spouse or dependent child whenever there is the possibility of a conflict of interest. The policy follows two controversial incidents last summer, when two UT professors were accused of conflicts of interest relating to studies they published.UT’s faculty council was expected to have a "dialog" about the issue Monday afternoon, but Juan Sanchez, vice president of research, had to leave the meeting before the faculty council could reach the agenda item. The "dialog" was pushed to the next meeting, Feb. 18, pending Sanchez’s availability.

Jon Olson, an associate professor of petroleum and geosystems engineering at UT, said the policy was too broad.

“My impression for how the policy applies is it will be an administrative burden,” Olson said.

Olson said he is currently conducting a research project that is funded by a company that he has stock in. Olson said while he can see this is a conflict of interest, he is not evaluating a product or property of the company.

Government professor Daron Shaw, who was not at the faculty council meeting but posted a negative critique of the policy on the faculty council meeting’s agenda, said he is concerned the policy does not protect UT faculty. For example, Shaw is concerned that if he provides the university with the financial information of his spouse or family, then that information would be available to the public via Public Information Act requests.

“The problem is they haven’t specified in what circumstances they would release information,” Shaw said. “What we have, therefore, is a one-sided policy where the university has decided it's more convenient to place the burdens on the faculty without any sort of protection.”

Shaw said he was not opposed to a more expansive conflict of interest policy.

“I am very hopeful that they are going to tweak it to make it work,” Shaw said.

Shaw said he was also concerned that little faculty input was taken before instituting the new policy last August.

In June, UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus published a study about the difference between children of same-sex parents and children of heterosexual parents. The study found children of same-sex parents tended to be less successful in life. Regnerus was later criticizedand accused of bias because he received funding from theWitherspoonInstitute and the Bradley Foundation, two socially conservative organizations. 

And then in July, the Public Accountability Initiative, a non-profit public interest research watchdog group, released a report identifying then-UT Professor Chip Groat as a member of the Plains Exploration & Production Company’s board. The company does hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and Groat had published a study earlier in theyearclaiming fracking was did affect groundwater supplies. 

UT conducted an inquiry to determine if an investigation of Regnerus’ study was necessary. The inquiry determined noscientific misconduct on Regnerus' part.

An independent study did find flaws with Groat’s fracking study, however, criticizing UT for the way it conducted the study and the lack of financial disclosure. Groat resigned from his position at the university in November.

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