Big Oil U

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

It's no secret that Big Oil weilds a lot of power in Washington. But oil giants are also spending big on campus, too—to the tune of $880 million. The liberal think-tank Center for American Progress released a new report on Thursday looking at the funding oil companies are lobbing at universities. In the past decade, oil companies gave millions to support energy research at ten of the top American universities—producing "potentially compromised" research, the group argues.

Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, and ExxonMobil have all made sizable grants to universities to underwrite energy research. The funds from these private corporations are filling gaps left by declining public investment, but they could also be tainting research, the report's author says. "Our analysis found that Big Oil and other large energy firms are exercising quite a bit of influence and control over these universities' operations," said Jennifer Washburn, a researcher hired to conduct the report. The concern is that the research has been "hijacked or excessively controlled by" these companies.

The report looked at grants awarded to 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, and Rice University. Washburn and fellow researchers found that, in many cases, the companies got a major say in who sat on the boards allocating the money, did little to avoid conflicts of interest, and often were allowed to determine what information was released, and where. In many cases, the contracts the universities signed with the companies ceded quite a bit of control to the funders from the oil industry.

Washburn concludes that the study indicates 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 major findings:

Big Oil disregarded peer review. None of the 10 research alliance agreements 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 of the contracts allowed for full governing control by oil industry sponsors.
Big Oil managed research proposal selection. In these contracts, 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 alliance agreements 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 alliance agreements permitted exceptionally long publication delays.

This is problematic, as it means much of the energy research and development is now guided by companies that have quite a conflict of interests. One well-known example the report cites is BP's $500 million grant to the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, which drew attention when the man key to sealing the deal, Steven Chu, was tapped to serve as the Secretary of Energy. The institute is primarily dedicated to researching biofuels, a focus that could be the result of a bias on the part of BP. After all, it's a company that has invested billions in infrastructure centered on liquid fuels. Oil companies in general tend toward research into biofuels, to the exclusion of other alternative energy technologies.

But it's often difficult for cash-strapped schools to turn down major funding. It doesn't help that government spending on energy research and development is drying up; between 1993 and 2006, federal spending on all energy-related R&D averaged just $3.6 billion per year, which is 60 percent less than it was in 1979.