Big Oil Buys Science - With the Help of Taxpayer Dollars

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Big oil companies are spending big money on energy research at American universities. Over the last decade, oil giants like Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil have spent more than $800 million on research contracts with top-tier universities. "And what is the problem with that?" you may ask. Some will argue, persuasively, that industry-university partnerships are beneficial for the research and development of new energy technologies and that universities, with their dwindling budgets, benefit from private research funding.

But, yes, there is a problem. A big one. A recent report by the Center for American Progress, authored by investigative journalist Jennifer Washburn, examined ten large-scale, long-term contracts that govern corporate-funded energy research at several major universities and concluded that these partnerships fail to establish adequate safeguards for scientific objectivity and academic independence. The study, titled Big Oil Goes to College, draws some very disturbing conclusions:

  • Big oil controls academic governing bodies.

Universities gave up control of the bodies charged with directing the academic research partnership. Four of the ten contracts examined in the report allowed for full control by the participating corporations.

  • Big oil controls research proposal selection.

 In most of the contracts, universities gave up control over the evaluation and selection of research proposals.

  • No peer review requirements for research proposal evaluation.
  • 

None of the contracts requires scientific peer review procedures for the selection of research proposals.

  • Big oil limits university’s right to publish research results.

While the agreements preserve the university’s right to publish, several contracts allow for long publication delays.

  • Big oil controls commercial rights to academic findings.

Most of the contracts severely limit the universities' rights to license the results of research, granting exclusive commercial control of the research to the private sponsors.

These findings paint a worrisome picture of the balance between the goals of the oil companies to produce research that promotes business profits and the academic mission to produce independent research that advances the public knowledge and the common good.

For oil companies, these agreements have basically allowed them to hire high quality researchers and labs on the cheap. With control over the evaluation and selection of research proposals handed to the oil companies and no peer review requirements, the agreements analyzed in the report open the door to "corporate research for hire," seriously challenging academic integrity and independence.

The biggest of the agreements analyzed in the report is the ten-year partnership between BP and UC Berkeley worth $500 million, which established the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a research lab primarily dedicated to biofuels. The terms of the agreement allowed BP to set up a full proprietary lab at the Berkeley campus, where some sixteen scientists are conducting research that has been selected through a process mainly controlled by the oil company.

"All of their research is completely secret, completely proprietary. So the concern here is that you really have an entire academic facility at UC Berkeley that is functioning as a contract research lab for BP," Washburn explains.

Moreover, there are serious conflicts of interest in the committee charged with selecting research proposals at EBI. Of the thirteen members who sit on the committee, two are BP employees, the academic director has financial interests in an outside company partnering with BP on research very similar to the investigation that is being done at EBI, and nine other members of the committee receive funding from BP to do their own research. The problem with this situation is that the evaluation of research proposals is greatly compromised, since the members of the committee have a strong incentive to disregard proposals that would compete with or undermine their own research.

As Washburn explains: "Let’s say that someone comes to the Energy Biosciences Institute and they want to look more critically at what the environmental impact of biofuels is, if we were to switch over to largely producing fuels through biofuels. How likely is it that these professors, who are heavily involved in biofuels development research, are going to select that proposal to be funded? And that’s what concerns us. This is a public research university, heavily financed by US taxpayers, and we don’t want outside oil companies dictating the research agenda."

Moreover, the restrictions on the dissemination of academic research under the terms of the contracts analyzed in the report (which in some instances allow for the delay of publication for up to one year) bring to mind the attempts of BP to silence scientists after the Gulf Oil spill. At the time, the oil company hired or tried to hire scientists to research the impact of the spill as part of a defense strategy against litigation on the damages of the Gulf disaster. The company tried to hire the entire Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama but the terms of the agreement were so alarming that the professors refused. Under the contract proposed by BP, the results of the research would have to be kept secret for three years, unless the company decided otherwise.

"They wanted the oversight authority to keep us from publishing things if, for whatever reason, they didn’t want them to be published," Robert Ship, the Department Chair, said at the time. "People were muzzled as part of the contract. They were muzzled, and certainly it’s not something we could live with."

The fact that big oil companies have increasingly turned to federal grants to carry out research on alternative energy technologies is not surprising, since federal research grants have increasingly included corporate matching requirements in an effort to use private funding to leverage scarce public money. In fact, energy research and development sank years ago and never recovered. According to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, current public investment in energy research is less than half of what it was three decades ago and US consumers spend more on potato chips than the federal government commits to alternative energy development.

While only six percent of overall university research is funded by corporate sponsors, according to some estimates, private companies now influence between 20 to 25 percent of overall academic research funding. Because of the increasing federal preference to allocate research funding based on private matching requirements, a larger amount of taxpayers dollars going into university research is now effectively turned "private" by the time it reaches the university labs.

The consequences of this growing promiscuity between academic and commercial research present new challenges to the independence and objectivity of universities and their research. The risk of hijacking the universities' research agenda and compromising academic integrity is especially worrisome at a time when independent research is required to address the urgent need for new, truly clean energy alternatives. Universities, which are institutions of public interest and are therefore subsidized by taxpayers' dollars, need to be able to conduct research guided by the need to promote the common good and not private companies' bottom lines.

 

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