Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A Wary Eye on ‘Big Oil’ Funding Energy Research

• October 15, 2010 • 12:47 AM

The Center for American Progress fears a potential loss of academic control as major oil companies pay for much of the energy research done at universities.

The public investment in energy research has declined rapidly from its historic high during America’s last major spasm of national interest in the topic, following the Arab oil embargo in the late 1970s. Three decades ago, 18 percent of all federal R&D money went into energy. Today, amid what many scientists consider a more fundamental crisis, the U.S. government now spends 1.6 percent of its R&D budget on energy.

As a result, universities that have long done much of that research increasingly turn to a different source of funding: corporations with deep pockets and a vested interest in the future of technologies like biofuels.

This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. Many of the critics who lament corporate money’s suspicious influence blame those same corporations for not spending enough to develop alternative energy. But a new report out Thursdsay by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank, cautions that universities may be ceding too much control to their corporate partners in major research alliances.

The concern is an older one in the pharmaceutical field; a similar concern has been raised in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that BP is “buying up” marine scientists.

The new report, “Big Oil Goes to College,” analyzed more specifically the legal contracts binding 10 multimillion-dollar, multiyear partnerships between big research universities and “Big Oil” — Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil. The deals represent $883 million in industry-funded energy research over 10 years.

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] “Essentially what we found was that the contract language in these 10 agreements did not always adequately protect academic freedom and academic transparency, exactly the characteristics of the academy that make universities so credible,” said Jennifer Washburn, the independent researcher who authored the report, as well as the 2005 book University, Inc.

To give just a hint of how universities view these agreements, Washburn said she filed 24 public-records requests to obtain contracts with industry. Only nine schools responded.

In nine of the 10 contracts Washburn examined, with the help of legal analysts, the universities failed to retain majority academic control over the central bodies governing the alliances (bodies responsible, for example, for selecting grant recipients). Eight out of the 10 gave the corporate sponsor total control over the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals. None of the 10 required research proposals to be evaluated by outside peer review.

“In short,” the report concludes, “the 10 contracts examined in this report indicate that the balance between Big Oil’s commercial interests and the university’s commitment to independent academic research, high-quality science, and academic freedom seems to have tilted in favor of Big Oil.”

The universities, which were given a chance to respond to the report before its publication, largely disagreed.

“In sum,” responded Arizona State, “nothing in the contract between ASU and BP ‘raises questions about ASU’s ability to maintain its own institutional autonomy, its research objectivity, and its academic independence from the industrial sponsor, BP.’ The IP provisions were neither unusual nor inconsistent with standard practices in university technology transfer.”

Kate Gordon, CAP’s vice president for energy policy, said the universities did generally complain that they should be evaluated on their actual research practices, and not the legalese drawn up to establish the alliances. Several universities told CAP that in fact they maintain strict standards for peer review and publication timeliness, regardless of what the contracts say (some of the contracts specified publication delays of as long as a year).

“I’m a lawyer,” Gordon countered. “If I had a client entering into a multimillion-dollar deal with a corporation, I would want to make sure all the stuff I wanted to happen was reflected in that deal in the written language. That’s why we looked at the contract language.”

Gordon and Washburn don’t deny that such alliances should exist — but rather, that the protections the universities insisted were in place to govern them need to be documented where they matter most, on paper.

“We’re clearly going into an era where public funding is going to be less and less available,” Gordon said. “With talk about the deficit, the shrinking budgets for all kinds of universities at the federal and state level, the real reluctance to do spending on research and development as well as on public universities that’s coming from Congress and some of the state houses, all of that does not bode well for public funding of research and development on alternative energy.”

Meaning, in other words, this is it — bucks from BP, or Chevron. So universities had better take care to document how they deploy that money to shake off perceptions that can be just as damaging as impropriety itself.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.