Texas participant in physics breakthrough repaid $5M in misspent funds

utrgvThe Texas institute that participated in the groundbreaking gravitational waves discovery had to repay nearly $5 million in funding after misusing and misreporting benefits, according to audits obtained by The Monitor.

The infractions occurred at The University of Texas Brownsville, which has since become part of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). Once the issues were discovered, UTRGV had to make the reimbursements.

As The Monitor reported:

The audits, conducted by the [University of Texas] System, resulted in the discovery of the misuse of federal grants totaling $1.9 million by the Center for Gravitation Wave Astronomy over a period of six years. A second audit uncovered $2.9 million in state funds for over reported benefits in the appropriation years of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Guy Bailey, founding president of UTRGV, told The Monitor:

What we wanted to do is make sure that we paid any obligations out of Brownsville institutional reserves before the dissolution of UT Brownsville on August 31, 2016.

According to the audits, the Center for Gravitation Wave Astronomy (CGWA) — where scientists participated in the massive effort to detect gravitational waves — overcharged in at least six federal research grants from 2009 to 2015 to pay salaries. The Monitor reported:

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.

According to The Monitor, an investigation revealed that Mario Diaz, director of CGWA, was aware of these overcharges:

…it appears based on a May 2014 Memo to Dr. Alan Artibise, UTB Provost, that Dr. Diaz was aware that federal funds were being overcharged for faculty salaries in violation of federal requirements.

Bailey told The Monitor:

We have no quibble with the quantity or the quality of the research that we did. We believe it was very high quality research and, of course, the audit doesn’t address that.

But, he added,

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.

The second audit revealed a misunderstanding of the terms institutional funds and local funds, which

resulted in a reimbursement of $2,976,201.81 to the state for overcharged benefits.

In June, Bailey announced that employee salaries will increase by $3 million, but noted to The Monitor that there are now limited institutional reserves after the pay-out.

Earlier this week, some were surprised that the 2016 Nobel Prize in physics went to researchers for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter” instead of the gravitational waves discovery; Forbes described it as a “shocker.”

Gravitational waves were detected in 2015 by by Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors in Louisiana and Washington. UTRGV was an integral part of that effort, according to a news release:

The UTRGV CGWA has the largest group of gravitational-wave researchers in Texas and is one of the largest from the United States involved in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) global research effort. Its scientists and student researchers are key contributors to the first direct detection of gravitational waves; more than 20 authors on the detection paper to be published by Physical Review Letters are current or past members of the CGWA.

“This is a major scientific triumph and testimony to the persistence and courage of scientists who never gave up,” said Dr. Mario Díaz, CGWA director. “Never before in the history of modern physics has a predicted phenomenon been so elusive and taken so long to be observed experimentally. It is also a tribute to the scientific vision of The University of Texas that has supported the CGWA for all these years.”

Hat tip: Zen Faulkes

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