Big Oil Goes to College
Publication Type:Web Article
Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants from major oil companies may have compromised the ethics of energy research at such institutions as UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Stanford and Cornell.
Cornell is considering leasing some of its land holdings to natural gas drillers. SUNY Binghamton signed a $1.4 million dollar gas lease in 2008.
According to the 212-page study, released by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, such companies as BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips have funded more than $800 million in potentially compromised research with few protections for academic independence.
For example, since 2002, Stanford has received $225 million from a consortium led by ExxonMobil to study technology to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The company operates refineries, oil drilling facilities, tankers and gas stations, making it a major emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases globally.
As part of the Stanford contract, the industry controls all four voting seats on the research alliance's governing body, and peer review of faculty research proposals is done "at the discretion of industry sponsors," the report says.
...this report represents the first time independent analysts have systematically examined a set of written university-industry agreements within a specific research area—in this case, the energy R&D sector—to evaluate how well they balance the goals of the corporate sponsors to produce commercial research that advances business profits with the missions of American universities to perform high-quality, disinterested academic research that advances public knowledge for the betterment of society.
See: Helene Cooper and John M. Broder. "BP’s Ties to Agency Are Long and Complex". May 26, 2010. NYT.
Hopefully, this NYT “mention” will draw some much-needed media attention to the actual contents of my own report, which examines university-industry alliances to finance energy research on campus, and raises questions about whether the current structure of these alliances adequately protects the universities’ academic mission and their ability to carry out independent, high-quality, reliable, public-good research. This article today does not address these issues at all. But, helpfully, Cooper and Broder in their NYT story did note that BP, in a May 24th press release, has pledged $500 million for “Independent Research into Impact of Spill on Marine Environment,” with the first grants going to the University of Louisiana. It looks like the iron is hot to look more deeply at university-industry research partnerships of this kind. – Jennifer
Media reports indicate the University of California system may be on the verge of signing a contract to create the proposed Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) with BP. It is obviously a matter of urgent priority for the health of the planet to promote research and innovation related to alternative energy, and it is imperative that public research institutions direct major new resources to such endeavors. It is not at all obvious, however, that public institutions should do this in collaboration with giant oil companies that are contributing massively to climate change.
At minimum, such collaborations require intense scrutiny and informed debate. The prospect of giant carbon polluters directing research related to and gaining control of key energy technologies is very troubling -- especially when the research is conducted at, and the technologies are developed in collaboration with, public institutions. In this regard, the details of the UC-BP research agreement are of great importance. They will specify how research priorities are to be established, and how the fruits of the research collaborationare to be managed and controlled.
The funds will come from BP’s $500 million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GRI, which will support universities in the Gulf area in research on the fate and effects of oil, dispersed oil and dispersants.