The public investment in energy research has declined rapidly from its historic high during America's last major spasm of national interest in the topic, following the Arab oil embargo in the late 1970s. Three decades ago, 18 percent of all federal R&D money went into energy. Today, amid what many scientists consider a more fundamental crisis, the U.S. government now spends 1.6 percent of its R&D budget on energy.
As a result, universities that have long done much of that research increasingly turn to a different source of funding: corporations with deep pockets and a vested interest in the future of technologies like biofuels.
This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. Many of the critics who lament corporate money's suspicious influence blame those same corporations for not spending enough to develop alternative energy. But a new report out Thursdsay by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank, cautions that universities may be ceding too much control to their corporate partners in major research alliances.
The new report, "Big Oil Goes to College," analyzed more specifically the legal contracts binding 10 multimillion-dollar, multiyear partnerships between big research universities and "Big Oil" — Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil. The deals represent $883 million in industry-funded energy research over 10 years.
"Essentially what we found was that the contract language in these 10 agreements did not always adequately protect academic freedom and academic transparency, exactly the characteristics of the academy that make universities so credible," said Jennifer Washburn, the independent researcher who authored the report, as well as the 2005 book University, Inc.
To give just a hint of how universities view these agreements, Washburn said she filed 24 public-records requests to obtain contracts with industry. Only nine schools responded.
In nine of the 10 contracts Washburn examined, with the help of legal analysts, the universities failed to retain majority academic control over the central bodies governing the alliances (bodies responsible, for example, for selecting grant recipients). Eight out of the 10 gave the corporate sponsor total control over the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals. None of the 10 required research proposals to be evaluated by outside peer review.
"In short," the report concludes, "the 10 contracts examined in this report indicate 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 universities, which were given a chance to respond to the report before its publication, largely disagreed.
"In sum," responded Arizona State, "nothing in the contract between ASU and BP 'raises questions about ASU's ability to maintain its own institutional autonomy, its research objectivity, and its academic independence from the industrial sponsor, BP.' The IP provisions were neither unusual nor inconsistent with standard practices in university technology transfer."
Kate Gordon, CAP's vice president for energy policy, said the universities did generally complain that they should be evaluated on their actual research practices, and not the legalese drawn up to establish the alliances. Several universities told CAP that in fact they maintain strict standards for peer review and publication timeliness, regardless of what the contracts say (some of the contracts specified publication delays of as long as a year).
"I'm a lawyer," Gordon countered. "If I had a client entering into a multimillion-dollar deal with a corporation, I would want to make sure all the stuff I wanted to happen was reflected in that deal in the written language. That's why we looked at the contract language."
Gordon and Washburn don't deny that such alliances should exist — but rather, that the protections the universities insisted were in place to govern them need to be documented where they matter most, on paper.
"We're clearly going into an era where public funding is going to be less and less available," Gordon said. "With talk about the deficit, the shrinking budgets for all kinds of universities at the federal and state level, the real reluctance to do spending on research and development as well as on public universities that's coming from Congress and some of the state houses, all of that does not bode well for public funding of research and development on alternative energy."
Meaning, in other words, this is it — bucks from BP, or Chevron. So universities had better take care to document how they deploy that money to shake off perceptions that can be just as damaging as impropriety itself.