The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘university research’

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.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Education | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of University Research

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 22, 2008

Image by tom )''( - FlickrToday’s New York Times includes a terrific article, titled At One University, Tobacco Money Is a Secret, by Alan Finder who describes how the tobacco industry continues to situationally manipulate the marketplace of ideas. We’ve excerpted a few excerpts from the story below.

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On campuses nationwide, professors and administrators have passionately debated whether their universities should accept money for research from tobacco companies. But not at Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution in Richmond, Va.

That is largely because hardly any faculty members or students there know that there is something to debate — a contract with extremely restrictive terms that the university signed in 2006 to do research for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company and a unit of Altria Group.

The contract bars professors from publishing the results of their studies, or even talking about them, without Philip Morris’s permission. If “a third party,” including news organizations, asks about the agreement, university officials have to decline to comment and tell the company. Nearly all patent and other intellectual property rights go to the company, not the university or its professors.

“There is restrictive language in here,” said Francis L. Macrina, Virginia Commonwealth’s vice president for research, who acknowledged that many of the provisions violated the university’s guidelines for industry-sponsored research. “In the end, it was language we thought we could agree to. It’s a balancing act.”

But the contract, a copy of which The New York Times obtained under the Virginia Freedom of Information law, is highly unusual and raises questions about how far universities will go in search of scarce research dollars to enhance their standing. It also brings a new dimension to the already divisive debate on many campuses over whether it is appropriate for universities to accept tobacco money for research.

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Philip Morris, based in Richmond, is a likely source for Virginia Commonwealth in its hunt for dollars from a finite number of corporations. Among tobacco companies, Philip Morris is the leader in investing in academic research. And for Virginia Commonwealth, expanding ties with its neighbor could produce other benefits like additional grants and support for other university functions.

About a dozen researchers and research ethicists from other universities were astonished at the restrictions in the contract, when they were told about it.

Image by taberandrew - Flickr“When universities sign contracts with these covenants, they are basically giving up their ethos, compromising their values as a university,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University who is an expert on corporate influence on medical research. “There should be no debate about having a sponsor with control over the publishing of results.”

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About 15 public health and medical schools no longer accept donations from the tobacco industry, and many major research universities continue to do so only if guaranteed independence to carry out the research and publish the results.

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A tenured scientist at Virginia Commonwealth, who would not be interviewed for attribution because he said he feared retribution against his junior colleagues, called the contract’s restrictions, especially the limitations on publication, “completely unacceptable in the research world.”

For most of the decade, Philip Morris financed conventional research grants, using a scientific panel to select worthy research proposals from professors. The company granted independence to the professors whose work it sponsored and left them free to publish.

Even so, opponents of smoking opposed the grants, arguing that universities should not take money from tobacco companies because of the public health impact of smoking and what they viewed as the industry’s misuse of scientific research.

Last fall, Philip Morris began phasing out this program to switch to developing new products, said Dr. Solana, the company vice president. Some of the new research will be conducted internally, he said, at a new company research center in Richmond, and some will be contracted out to universities and corporations case by case.

The restricted contract with Virginia Commonwealth, Dr. Solana said, was part of what he hopes will be a new and different relationship between the company and universities. But scientists said such restrictions — especially the constraints on publication and what university officials can say publicly — are contrary to the open discussion essential to university research.

“It’s counter to the entire purpose and rationale of a university,” said David Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia University. “It’s not a consulting company; it’s not just another commercial firm.

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The entire article is here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The company ‘had no control or influence over the research’ . . . .,” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Industry-Funded Research – Part II,” and “Captured Science.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Education | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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