Big Oil Goes to College: Report Explores the Corporate Control of University Energy Research

The Center for American Progress released a comprehensive analysis and independent expert review examining the implications of the confirmed $833 million in corporate funding from Big Oil to energy research at universities over the last decade. The report examines 10 recent university-industry agreements involving as many as 43 companies, 13 leading universities, and two federal research labs. 

ig Oil Goes to College: An Analysis of 10 Research Collaboration Contracts between Leading Energy Companies and Major U.S. Universities explores the growing phenomenon of academic-corporate partnerships at universities, and the findings demonstrate why everyone ought to be concerned. As these partnerships are only likely to proliferate and expand, how universities manage knowledge for the public good - particularly research that has considerable ramifications for how we deal with the climate crisis - must be addressed.

Before Congress releases billions of dollars in federal funding for R&D of alternative and renewable energy and energy efficiency through these public-private partnerships, it should take a good look at the CAP report’s findings and recommendations.  

CAP’s report is the first independent analysis into industry-university partnership agreements in the energy R&D sector.  University research has traditionally been disinterested and designed to serve the public good, but the growth in these industry partnerships calls into question whose interests (or bottom line) this scientific research really serves.

The report poses some very important questions that have yet to be raised about the nature of university-industry energy research agreements. Why are already highly profitable oil companies and corporations  turning to U.S. universities to perform their commercial research and development (R&D) instead of conducting the work themselves? And why, in turn, are U.S. universities opening their doors to Big Oil? What does it mean when research funding dollars come from Big Oil? Does the science suffer as a result of corporate influence and control?

Jennifer Washburn, the report’s author, is deeply concerned about the ability of U.S. universities to safeguard their academic and public-interest functions when negotiating research contracts with Big Oil. Many of the contracts leave the door open to serious limitations on academic freedom and research independence, and give Big Oil too much control.  And that control is only getting larger. 

Though only 6 percent of university research overall is funded by industry, corporatization of campuses is on the rise.  The U.S. government has a growing preference for allocating federal R&D funds through corporate matching grants and other cost-sharing and cooperative research arrangements, and this means that private industry now directly influences anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of university research funding. 

So much for the idea of the ivory towers of the academe - it now seems more apt to refer to its corporate towers. 

The report demonstrates that:

1. In nine of 10 energy research agreements, university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the university-industry alliance. Four of 10 gave the industry sponsors full governance control.

2. Eight of the 10 agreements permitted the corporate sponsor(s) to fully control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.

3. None of the 10 agreements required faculty research proposals to be evaluated and awarded funding based on independent expert peer review, the traditional (and standard) method for awarding scientific research grants fairly and impartially.

4. Nine of the 10 agreements made no protections against financial conflicts of interest related to the alliance and its research functions. None of these agreements specified that committee members charged with evaluating and selecting faculty research proposals must be impartial, and could not award corporate funding to themselves.

A Troubling Climate

Big Oil and their lobbyist army are engaged in a multi-million dollar battle to suggest that climate legislation will be damaging to the American people (not to mention Big Oil’s bottom line).  Whenever comprehensive climate and energy legislation is finally implemented, however, a significant portion of the funds generated will likely be targeted toward efficiency and clean-energy R&D performed by academic experts at U.S. universities. And Big Oil will have a stake in it.  If that’s not a conflict of interest, I’m not sure what is. 

We might also ask why Big Oil is even interested in alternative energy. Certainly clean energy research enables energy companies to project a more pro-environmental public image.  These university partnerships give credence to Big Oil because they get to ride in on the coattails of the prestige and trust that we bestow on academic institutions. 

Even if it’s nothing more than greenwash, the redirection of industry R&D dollars to U.S. universities is significant. They are completing research within academic institutions where the work is received with more credibility. The vast majority of the corporate academic funding is now being directed to “alternative energy research” (especially biofuels), and this shift in the allocation of industry resources has the potential to significantly influence the academic research culture in this new energy arena.

More Cause for Concern

CAP’s report asks whether these university-industry partnership agreements adequately distinguish “academic research” from “corporate research for hire”. Troublingly, in eight of ten agreements, it is the industry sponsor and not the academic institution that sets the research agenda. By defining what research questions will be asked, nearly every sponsor exerts some degree of influence over the academic research enterprise. More troubling still, in nearly half of the agreements, the industry sponsors get to fully set the agenda in each new grant cycle, and therefore control and manage the very scope and bounds of the research.

Though the report found that the university’s fundamental right to publish was protected, in a number of the agreements there were lengthy corporate delays that could delay the publication of scientific findings. Typical practice recommends no more than a 60-day delay on publication of findings. In three of the agreements there is a 210-day delay (Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels); a one-year delay (an agreement with Chevron; and no maximum delay in publication, leaving the door open for infinite delay on the publication of pivotal research (Stanford).

The independent legal examiners found that most of the agreements gave too much corporate control over commercial rights to the research, giving industry sponsors monopoly commercial control over the alliances’ sponsored research results. The report also found weak protections for academic use and sharing, and found that 9 of 10 agreements failed to discuss the management of financial conflicts of interest. 

The boundary between academic research and commercial interest has been blurred, and it is worthwhile to explore what the ramifications of this are in greater detail, particularly when the stakes are so high. As the report notes, “Independent academics and experts are urgently needed to measure and interpret today’s complex global-warming problems, uncover path-breaking new technologies, and provide impartial advice and expertise to the public and government agencies regarding effective public policy.”

As the trend of energy industry influence in university research is likely to continue, there is a need to assess the ability of universities to continue producing credible, independent research in these critical fields. We saw what happened when Big Tobacco began buying science and scientific expertise, and energy research may turn out to be no different.