Study Examines Growing Relationship Between Big Oil and Research Universities

Oct 25, 2010

In a recent report, the Center for American Progress analyzed 10 multimillion dollar energy research agreements between American universities and large oil companies. They found that many schools are failing to preserve their academic and public-interest roles when negotiating research contracts with large corporations.

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Making Deals

Big Oil - Big Compromises

University research has long played an important role in developing all kinds of new technologies. And schools are often encouraged to develop links to the business world in order to stimulate the economy and bring these innovations to the marketplace. But according to the Center for American Progress (CAP), one such relationship may be crossing an important line.

CAP notes that over the past decade, large oil companies such as ExxonMobil Corp., BP PLC and Chevron Corp. have invested millions of dollars into relationships with U.S. universities. The companies, collectively known as 'Big Oil,' are funding research into alternative and renewable energy. What makes these deals stand out are the troubling ways in which universities are allowing their academic and public-interest roles to be compromised by the interests of the oil companies.

CAP performed a detailed analysis of ten university-industry agreements for energy research that together total $833 million in 'confirmed funding' over the past decade. The organization examined the legal terms, conditions and intellectual property provisions of each contract in order to determine how the sponsored research is carried out by students and faculty on college campuses. And they found that in many cases, these agreements 'leave the door open to serious limitations on academic freedom and research independence.'

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Failing to Protect the Public Interest

The report identified eight key areas in which Big Oil's contracts with institutions such as Arizona State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University (see Appendix the report for the full list) failed to uphold the academic and public-interest obligations that are at the core of a research university.

  1. Independent and academic self-governance. In nine out of 10 agreements, the university did not maintain majority control over the governing body that directs the university-industry alliance. Even more troubling: there were four contracts in which the industry sponsor maintained full control over the governing body.
  2. Impartial peer review. In most of academia, funding must be awarded to research proposals based on the findings of impartial peer review. None of the 10 contracts required such review for faculty research proposals, leaving the very nature of the studies open to question.
  3. Funding transparency. Eight out of the 10 agreements failed to provide clear guidelines on how faculty may apply for alliance research funding or what the selection criteria may be. CAP points out the it is 'widely understood' in the academic community that high standards in research can only be maintained if research and scholarship is judged 'fairly and impartially based on academic merit and scientific excellence,' not the wishes or dictates of corporate sponsors.
  4. Academic vs. corporate research. CAP set out to determine if the agreements adequately distinguished between academic research and corporate 'research for hire.' They found that in the majority of contracts, the industry sponsor defined the alliance's 'overarching research agenda.' Moreover, almost all of the contracts broke away from long-standing university commitments to academic self-governance.
  5. Right to publish. Some good news: nine out of 10 of the agreements preserved a university's right to publish findings. But in many cases, this right was restricted by potentially lengthy corporate delays.
  6. Commercial rights. As noted above, many universities undertake research into new technologies with the goal of developing their own commercially viable patents. This role can be said to be in the public interest because it supplements tax payer funding to public institutions, and supports local economies. Independent legal examiners hired by CAP found that seven of the 10 agreements gave nearly exclusive commercial rights of the research to industry sponsors, stripping universities of their usual power to license uses of their research.
  7. Academic sharing. CAP also found that, on average, the contracts did not protect researchers' right to share their findings with other academic investigators. Sharing is a very important part of the 'academic enterprise' - when researchers can't learn from each other, innovation slows dramatically.
  8. Conflicts of interest. Finally, CAP examined whether the agreements discussed the management of financial conflicts of interest related to research performed for the industry-university alliance. They found that nine out of 10 contracts failed to address this issue at all, and the tenth contract had weak provisions at best.

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Producing Public Knowledge

In a time when finding reliable sources of alternative and renewable energy is increasingly urgent, these findings are particularly troubling. Although industry sponsorship of research can provide much-needed funding, Big Oil's interference in the research process may end up protecting corporate interests at the expense of innovation and the public interest.

CAP argues that the problem can be corrected in two ways: Increasing oversight of these industry-university alliances and adopting stronger contractual language to protect university independence, impartial peer review and 'the production of high-quality public knowledge.'

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