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Big Oil Goes to College: BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell Fund & Influence Research at Major Universities

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Over the past five years, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips have given millions of dollars to support energy research at top US universities. The private funds might fill a gap left by declining public investment, but a new report from the Center for American Progress warns that they also pose the risk of hijacking the universities’ research agenda and compromising academic independence. In the largest deal, British oil giant BP has a $500 million collaboration with three major publicly financed research institutions: the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The world’s largest oil companies aren’t just heavyweights in the world of Washington lobbyists; they’re also showing a great deal of interest in financing energy research at major American universities. According to a new report released by the Center for American Progress, five of the world’s top ten oil companies — ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips — give millions — have been giving millions over the last decade to support energy research at America’s top universities. The private funds might fill a gap left by declining public investment, but the report warns they also pose the risk of hijacking the universities’ research agenda and compromising academic independence.

Top Obama administration officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Undersecretary for Science at the Department of Energy Steven Koonin, strongly advocate using industry money to advance research on clean energy. Prior to joining the administration, both Chu and Koonin were instrumental in brokering a $500 million research collaboration between the British oil giant BP and three major publicly financed research institutions — University of California, Berkeley; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The report provides a detailed examination of ten university-industry agreements that exceed $800 million. It looks at grants awarded to Arizona State University; Stanford; the University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Davis; Colorado School of Mines; University of Colorado, Boulder; Colorado State University; Georgia Institute of Technology; Iowa State University; Texas A&M; the University of Texas at Austin; and Rice University. The report is called “Big Oil Goes to College.”

I’m joined now from San Francisco by the author of the report, investigative journalist Jennifer Washburn. She’s also author of the book University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

Jennifer, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out the scope of this.

JENNIFER WASHBURN: Right, so, basically what I did was I looked at ten large-scale agreements between universities and the bigger oil companies and energy companies, more broadly. And what I found was pretty staggering. I mean, it’s difficult to get a read on what the impact is of industry funding on university research. And so, what I did in this report was look at the actual legal research agreements that are signed between the energy companies and the universities. And I looked to see how well do they protect the universities’ core academic independence, their ability to carry out more objective research.

And what I found was really pretty surprising. Nine of the ten agreements allow the industry sponsor to basically control the overall governance of the research alliance on campus. The reason that’s important is because these alliances are long-term alliances that last anywhere from five to eight to ten years. So they really institutionalize the relationship between the outside oil company sponsors and the university. In eight of the ten agreements, the industry sponsors control the evaluation and selection of research proposals. None of the agreements that I looked at require any kind of independent expert peer review of faculty research —

AMY GOODMAN: But let’s just —- but let’s talk -—

JENNIFER WASHBURN: — to determine which projects should receive funding.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk specifically about this, when you talk about industry sponsors. We’re talking about, for example, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron. They choose the research project that students are going to be involved with — the company chooses — at a university?

JENNIFER WASHBURN: Yes. And, you know, student involvement, that’s — without question, a lot of these research agreements involve a lot of student labor. The oil companies are benefiting from what one person I talked to said was, you know, really getting a research lab on the cheap, because a lot of these students are subsidized by public funding. Many of the professors receive their salaries through public funding. So, in many ways, the oil companies are getting access to very high-quality researchers and labs that are heavily subsidized by US taxpayers.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the access that the company has to the information and the research and that the public has to it. I mean, are students being — having to sign privacy agreements saying they will not report on what they research?

JENNIFER WASHBURN: Well, I don’t have any evidence of that, per se. I mean, we do know —- I think I spoke to you earlier, Amy, about the fact that we do know that BP, after the Gulf oil spill, was asking academics to sign research agreements that required them to keep all of their conversations private or to not basically discuss their areas of research expertise for up to three years. So we are seeing restrictions, very serious restrictions, on professors being able to disseminate their research and speak publicly. In the agreements that I look at, there were some very disturbing long-term delays on publication -—

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer, I just want to stop you there. Jennifer, I want to just stop you there. Explain that more fully, what you found, after the BP oil spill, BP was doing with professors.

JENNIFER WASHBURN: OK. Now, I want to make it clear that that is not — what I looked at were these actual large-scale agreements with the universities, right? So it was not part of my report to actually look at this. But this is a case that happened after the BP oil spill. It came to light that a number of professors were very dismayed at the research contracts that they were being asked to sign by BP. And the main provision that really alarmed them was this provision that, you know, essentially muzzled them from being able to speak publicly about their research and really anything related to their area of expertise for up to three years. Copies of that contract were made public because the professors were so appalled by the terms. We don’t know how many professors actually signed those agreements.

And what I found in my report is that the universities are not imposing adequate protections. Faculty are being — are entering into large-scale agreements with oil company sponsors that fail to protect basic, basic standards of academic freedom and the ability to disseminate research. So, you know, at UC Davis, they have a very large deal with Chevron, and we know that publications are delayed for 120 days, or can be delayed for up to 120 days. That’s significant, because the university is supposed to — really, its lifeblood is publications.

So, you know, I also found that the industry sponsors are heavily controlling the selection of the research. And that can skew and bias what types of research are being funded. In the area of alternative energy research, obviously this is a real concern, because we need US universities to perform cutting-edge research, and we don’t want that research to be unduly controlled by outside industry sponsors.

AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s go to the biggest investment of all, which was very controversial. University of California, Berkeley — it was before the BP oil spill — but signing a contract with BP for half-a-billion dollars. At the time, talk about the people in charge and where they are today and what this contract actually means for UC Berkeley. It didn’t get a lot of attention during the BP oil spill.

JENNIFER WASHBURN: No, it didn’t get a lot of attention, which is really surprising. This is a ten-year agreement worth $500 million between BP and UC Berkeley, which is the flagship research institution in California. The agreement also involves Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which is a federal laboratory run by UC Berkeley, and the University of Illinois. So, it lasts ten years. It’s called the Energy Biosciences Institute. What I found that was really striking about this deal is that it allows BP to set up a fully proprietary laboratory inside of the main academic building that houses the Energy Biosciences Institute. So, you’ve got open academic labs that have students and faculty working together, and then you have this entire area of the academic building that is occupied by BP scientists. I think currently there are about sixteen scientists working there. And all of their research is completely secret, completely proprietary. So, the concern here is that you really have an entire academic facility at UC Berkeley that is functioning as a research — a contract research lab for BP. And I think that there are not adequate safeguards to make sure that the academic research is truly independent at the Energy Biosciences Institute. And that’s what I looked at in this agreement. We could talk about specifics.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you talk about the specifics that are most compelling to you?

JENNIFER WASHBURN: Well, one of the things that I really want to address and that hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage thus far are the conflicts of interest at the EBI, it’s called, standing for Energy Biosciences Institute. So you have — UC Berkeley was very adamant that — you know, “Don’t worry. BP doesn’t overly influence the research at BP.” And they announced that all of the research proposals would be selected through competitive peer review. Now, what I found is that’s not really the case. There’s nothing that we could really call genuine competitive peer review.

The committee that is charged with selecting faculty research proposals, there are thirteen people who sit on that committee. Two of them are BP employees. One of them, the academic director, has financial interests in a company, an outside company, that’s partnering with BP on research that is very similar to what is the research that’s being done at Berkeley. So he has a direct financial conflict of interest. Then, the other faculty members who sit on this panel, the other ten of — there are ten academics in total, and nine of them all receive funding from BP to do their research. The reason that that’s a problem is that they’re essentially evaluating competing faculty research proposals, along with their own research proposals, and they’re all trying to apply for the same funding. So that’s a fundamental conflict of interest and certainly doesn’t constitute an independent or competitive evaluation of the proposals.

So, let me just break it down. Let’s say that, you know, someone comes to the Energy Biosciences Institute, and they want to look more critically at what the impact, what the environmental impact of biofuels is, if we were to switch over to largely producing fuels through biofuels, which come from plants. How likely is it that these professors, who are heavily involved in biofuels development research, how likely is it that they are going to select that proposal to be funded? And that’s what concerns us. This is a public research university, heavily financed by US taxpayers, and we don’t want outside oil companies dictating the research agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the university saying, for example, University of California, Berkeley? What is the response to your study?

JENNIFER WASHBURN: Well, to be frank, I mean, the university world has moved heavily in the direction of strongly advocating these outside industry relationships. We’re seeing the pharmaceutical industry has a huge influence at academic medical schools. These same large multi-year, multimillion-dollar deals are being forged between large pharma companies and universities. So, many of the universities really insist that there’s nothing wrong with any of this. And, you know, they argue, quite rightly, that they need research funding. And they also argue, persuasively, that it’s beneficial to have relationships with companies to develop — to commercially develop their research. And I have no problem with that. I think it’s true that we want to see research developed from universities and commercialized. But I absolutely think that we need to be very, very clear that industry sponsors should not be dictating the research agenda or controlling academic research. And that’s where there’s not adequate safeguards. And the universities, in my view, are not taking this seriously enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Washburn, we’re wrapping up. Your final comments and recommendations, what you think needs to be done and what most surprised you in your study? You had already written a book, University, Inc., so you’re very versed in the corporatization of education, and yet doing this latest report.

JENNIFER WASHBURN: Right. I think, really, it’s the breadth and scope of the problem. You know, looking at these ten industry agreements, I think I’ve shown that there are not adequate safeguards. If universities are going to establish these long-term relationships with outside corporate funders, we, as the public, and certainly students and faculty, need to know that there are strict provisions that protect the universities’ academic freedom and their ability to produce research that the public can trust, independent, credible research that the public can trust. And when you look at these ten agreements, you see that there is an urgent need to look more closely, to increase standards, and to address financial conflicts of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Washburn, I want to thank you very much for being with us, investigative journalist, independent researcher. Her latest report is out from the Center for American Progress. It’s called “Big Oil Goes to College.” We’ll link to it at Her latest book, University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

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