02 October 2016

Physics fraud

Well, this is an interesting reveal on the eve of UTRGV’s big flagship science and technology event, HESTEC. The physics department in the legacy institution, UT Brownsville, committed fraud with about $2 million worth of federal research money.

Not a good look, considering that the agencies they ripped off, like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense, have traditionally been big partners in HESTEC. Indeed, NASA is an official supporter of this year’s event.

And this is not a low-profile case, either. It’s part of the team that was involved in the discovery of gravitational waves. And that’s one of the biggest findings in physics in decades.

The Monitor reports:

An audit from the UT System Office of Internal Audits found at least six federal research grants were overcharged for a total of $1,957,547.27 for the partial or full payment of salaries of faculty who were mainly teaching and not conducting research, a critical violation of grant conditions that could have potential impact on future grant considerations.

“Salaries were charged up to 100 percent of the federal grants even though their workload reflected a full teaching load in Physics,” the audit states.

These funds came from research grants awarded to the Center for Gravitation Wave Astronomy by National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation-- two institutions that helped fund the center in 2003-- and the Department of Defense.

UTB notified the UT-System of at least three faculty members who were identified as being paid up to 100 percent of their salaries from research funds for multiple years, which was not part of the grant agreement.

“Center for Gravitation Wave Astronomy knowingly overcharged multiple research grants,” states the notification sent by UTB to the UT System Office of General Counsel. The department, referred to by audits as CGWA, was part of a recent national announcement in which gravitational waves had been detected, which is considered a huge scientific advancement in the field of physics.

The investigation revealed CGWA overcharged on six federal research grants from 2009 to 2015 to partially or fully pay the salaries of more than eight faculty members and some students. The investigation also concluded that the head of this department, CGWA Director Mario Diaz, was aware of the overcharges.

Of course, our institution’s president won’t promise that he will do anything about this:

When asked whether Diaz would keep his job, Bailey said he could not comment on personnel matters, but UT officials are still conducting an investigation and will send UTRGV officials the findings. Only then will any appropriate actions be taken.

After the creation of UTRGV, many administrative roles changed and some officials even retired, Bailey said. His main goal was to move forward and fully implement procedures that prevent these things from happening, especially now that the university is seeking more research funding.

“It was not under UTRGV’s watch,” Bailey said. “It’s important to us that we make sure that we have all of the processes in place so that it doesn’t happen again.”

My take is that Bailey seems the sort who subscribes to the “Do nothing and hope the problem goes away” school of university administration, and that he will be more concerned with preserving the institution’s image than whether or not anyone is made to pay for this blatant misuse of money. I expect he will try to wait this out and hope it blows over.

Oh wait, there’s more.

There’s another $3 million that the legacy institution has to pay back.

“We concluded that UTB’s benefits expenses for UTB and (Texas Southmost College) were incorrectly calculated and reported,” the audit states. “As a result, it was determined that the APS 011 reports needed to be recalculated for each institution separately.”

That second half is bad, although it isn’t as relevant to me personally as the first half. Faculty in my college, at my institution screwed up managing federal research money. I’ve gotten money from NSF before, but I think it just got a lot tougher. If I were at one of those agencies, I would be ready to blackball the institution.

And that money was probably going to be used for faculty pay increases. So because someone else misused money, I might be kissing my chance for a raise anytime soon goodbye.

External links

UTRGV forced to repay $5 million in funding on behalf of UTB

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