The Greasy Situation of University Research
Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 16, 2010
A new report, “Big Oil Goes to College,” by the Center for American Progress examines how research universities that accept millions of dollars from oil companies have failed to shield themselves from corporate influence. Here is an excerpt from the report’s introduction.
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The world’s largest oil companies are showing surprising interest in financing alternative energy research at U.S. universities. Over the past decade, five of the world’s top 10 oil companies—ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp., BP PLC, Royal Dutch Shell Group, and ConocoPhillips Co.—and other large traditional energy companies with a direct commercial stake in future energy markets have forged dozens of multi-year, multi-million-dollar alliances with top U.S. universities and scientists to carry out energy-related research. Much of this funding by “Big Oil” is being used for research into new sources of alternative energy and renewable energy, mostly biofuels.
Why are highly profitable oil and other large corporations increasingly turning to U.S. universities to perform their commercial research and development instead of conducting this work in-house? Why, in turn, are U.S. universities opening their doors to Big Oil? And when they do, how well are U.S. universities balancing the needs of their commercial sponsors with their own academic missions and public-interest obligations, given their heavy reliance on government research funding and other forms of taxpayer support?
The answers to these three questions are critical to energy-related research and development in our country, given the current global-warming crisis and the role that academic experts have traditionally played in providing the public with impartial research, analysis, and advice. To unpack these questions and help find answers, this report provides a detailed examination of 10 university-industry agreements that together total $833 million in confirmed corporate funding (over 10 years) for energy research funding on campus. Copies of these contractual agreements were obtained largely through state-level public record act requests (see the table on pages 13 and 14 for a list of these 10 agreements, and see page 15 for the methodology used for obtaining and analyzing them). Each agreement spells out the precise legal terms, conditions, and intellectualproperty provisions that govern how this sponsored research is carried out by the faculty and students on campus. (See methodology on page 15 for a discussion of how practices that are not required in these conflicts fit into the analysis.)
Independent, outside legal experts then performed a detailed analysis of each agreement. These experts’ detailed contract reviews may be found in Appendices 1 through 10 beginning on page 75 of this report, and include responses from a number of the universities that entered into these agreements. It should be noted that our external reviewers’ rankings for several of the “Contract Review Questions” are subjective because interpretations of law and other intellectual property terms cannot be strictly quantified. Also, the provisions in these contracts have not to our knowledge been tested in a court of law, so their “legal” meaning has not been definitively established.
The results of this report’s analysis of these 10 large-scale university-industry contracts raise troubling questions about the ability of U.S. universities to adequately safeguard their core academic and public-interest functions when negotiating research contracts with large corporate funders. This report identifies eight major areas where these contracts leave the door open to serious limitations on academic freedom and research independence. Here are just a few brief highlights:
- In nine of the 10 energy-research agreements we analyzed, the university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the university-industry alliance. Four of the 10 alliances actually give the industry sponsors full governance control.
- Eight of the 10 agreements permit the corporate sponsor or sponsors to fully control both the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.
- None of the 10 agreements requires faculty research proposals to be evaluated and awarded funding based on independent expert peer review, the traditional method for awarding academic and scientific research grants fairly and impartially based on scientific merit.
- Eight of the 10 alliance agreements fail to specify transparently, in advance, how faculty may apply for alliance funding, and what the specific evaluation and selection criteria will be.
- Nine of the 10 agreements call for no specific management of financial conflicts of interest related to the alliance and its research functions. None of these agreements, for example, specifies that committee members charged with evaluating and selecting faculty research proposals must be impartial, and may not award corporate funding to themselves. (See summary of main findings for details, pages 52-59, and the Appendices beginning on page 75.)
To our knowledge, this report represents the first time independent analysts have systematically examined a set of written university-industry agreements within a specific research area—in this case, the energy R&D sector—to evaluate how well they balance the goals of the corporate sponsors to produce commercial research that advances business profits with the missions of American universities to perform high-quality, disinterested academic research that advances public knowledge for the betterment of society.
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You can read or download the entire report here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Deeply Captured Situation of Spilling Oil,” “The Deeply Captured Situation of the Economic Crisis,” “Our Stake in Corporate Behavior,” “Tushnet on Teles and The Situation of Ideas – Abstract,” “Larry Lessig’s Situationism,” “The Situation of Policy Research and Policy Outcomes,” “Reclaiming Corporate Law in a New Gilded Age – Abstract,” “The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “The Situation of Medical Research,” “The Situation of Talk Radio,” “The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” “The Situation of University Research,” “Captured Science.”