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Big Oil has flooded campuses with millions of dollars to pay for
clean energy research at American universities, undermining tradition
academic values and potentially furthering a narrow commercial research
agenda, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress.

Jennifer Washburn shows how Big Oil has underwritten research at
top-tier universities
with few protections for scientific objectivity or
scholarly independence.

I call the disturbing trend where Big Oil sets the research agenda
and cashes in on the good name of prestigious research institutions "Big
Oil U." The biggest such deal was at UC Berkeley where BP pumped $500
million into the Energy Biosciences Institute. ExxonMobil funds a program at Stanford and Chevron has plunked its cash down at UC Davis.

Washburn's report, "Big Oil Goes To College"
carefully scrutinizes 10 large university research alliances. She and
her team would have looked at more but many institutions refused to make
key documents available to her legal experts for analysis.

Washburn is no stranger to corporate influence on American universities. She is the author of the highly regarded book, University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

In the Big Oil study, she found that each contract examined lacked
basic standards to protect academic independence and research
objectivity. Contracts investigated revealed problematic research
alliances at Arizona State University, UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis,
the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado at Boulder,
Colorado State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Iowa
State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at
Austin, Rice University, and several other affiliated universities and
federal labs.

Here are her major findings:

  • "Big Oil disregarded peer review. None of the 10 research
    alliances required impartial, scientific peer review procedures for the
    evaluation of research proposals or awarding of funding.
  • "Big Oil assumed control of academic governing bodies. Most
    universities surrendered control of the governing bodies charged with
    directing the academic research alliance, leaving academic
    self-governance insecure. Several gave full governing control to oil
    industry sponsors.
  • "Big Oil managed research-proposal selection. Most of the universities allowed oil industry sponsors to control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals.
  • "Failure to address conflicts of interest: Not one of the 10
    Big Oil agreements called for regulation of financial conflicts of
    interest on university research-selection committees and governing
    boards.
  • "Big Oil monopolized the results of academic research. Most
    of the 10 research alliances granted oil industry sponsors up front,
    exclusive commercial rights to academic findings, with only weak
    protections for faculty to share data and results with other academic
    institutions, though there were notable exceptions.  Several alliances
    permitted exceptionally long publication delays."

It's pretty clear why Big Oil would want the deals, but what's
causing universities to sell out their traditional academic research
independence?

Washburn has the correct answer: inadequate federal funding.  From
1993 to 2006, U.S. government spending on all energy related R&D
averaged $3.6 billion per year—60 percent less than the $9 billion the
U.S. government spent on energy research in 1979.

And as noted in a press conference, given the sorry state of the
economy and increasing unwillingness to fund public universities
adequately, the cash shortage is likely to continue.  Moreover, it's
not just Big Oil money that is tainting university research. Big Pharma
has been using the same technique.

Washburn offers recommendations for both the government and
universities. At the federal level, to protect the independence of
academic research, she urges government agencies to attach stronger
contract language to the receipt of all taxpayer-financed research
grants, whether issued alone or in tandem with corporate matching funds.

At American universities, Washburn calls on faculty councils to play a
larger role in the oversight of large-scale industrial research
alliances, and require that all funding and selection of research be
subject to rigorous, impartial peer review.

Finally, she advocates the launching of a new clean energy research
project similar in scale to the Apollo Project  that put American
astronauts on the moon in the 1960s.

One thing is certain: if we want the  independent, research that's
been the cornerstone of American universities, we need to act to protect
it now.