Is Big Oil Co-Opting Our Universities?

On October 14, the Center for American Progress published a disconcerting report  on the oil industry’s influence over our universities.  Titled “Big Oil Goes to College”, the report analyzes 10 research collaboration contracts between major oil companies and universities.  Author Jennifer Washburn highlights the following:

  • In nine of the 10 energy-research agreements we analyzed, the university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the university-industry alliance. Four of the 10 alliances actually give the industry sponsors full governance control.
  • Eight of the 10 agreements permit the corporate sponsor or sponsors to fully control both the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.
  • None of the 10 agreements requires faculty research proposals to be evaluated and awarded funding based on independent expert peer review, the traditional method for awarding academic and scientific research grants fairly and impartially based on scientific merit.
  • Eight of the 10 alliance agreements fail to specify transparently, in advance, how faculty may apply for alliance funding, and what the specific evaluation and selection criteria will be.
  • Nine of the 10 agreements call for no specific management of financial conflicts of interest related to the alliance and its research functions. None of these agreements, for example, specifies that committee members charged with evaluating and selecting faculty research proposals must be impartial, and may not award corporate funding to themselves. (See summary of main findings for details, pages 52-59, and the Appendices beginning on page 75.)

Washburn continues,

…According to some estimates, because of the federal government’s growing preference for allocating federal R&D funds through corporate matching grants and other cost-sharing and cooperative-research arrangements, private industry now directly influences anywhere from 20 percent to 25 percent of university research funding overall. In this way, a significant share of U.S. taxpayer funding that starts out as “public” funding is effectively turned “private” by the time it reaches the university investigators in their academic labs.

On a related note, Washburn writes, “From 1993 to 2006, U.S. government spending on all energy-related R&D (in real dollars) averag[ed] $3.6 billion per year…. This is 60 percent less than the $9 billion the U.S. government spent on energy R&D [in a single year] in 1979.  In contrast, a 2006 UC Davis study estimated that the cost to American taxpayers of defending U.S. oil and related economic interests in the Persian Gulf ranged in the tens of billions of dollars annually.  Economist Joseph Stiglitz conservatively estimated that in addition to the blood spilled, the cost of the Iraq War would exceed $3 trillion.