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What Price Impartiality? Top Universities Sell Their Reputations to Big Oil

RP Siegel | Tuesday October 19th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Is there any place left in our American society that is safe from the influence of dirty money?

Not the mainstream media. Not the Department of Defense. Not the Senate. Not in the dozens of front groups masquerading as grassroots organizations or scientific authorities.
Our decline has progressed from a nation that was once a beacon of integrity around the world, to one where any individual or group with enough money can get away with just about anything. We have now reached the point where a group with enough money could buy the opinion of the most respected authorities in the land and thereby dictate what ideas would be considered true by the vast majority of the people. I am talking about what is now happening in some of our greatest universities.

Once upon a time we could look to our academic institutions to remain inviolable bastions of objectivity, remaining above the fray, guided by the truth and the truth alone. Their focus was on educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers and teachers. They would also conduct research, with the noble aim of extending the frontiers of knowledge. Sometimes, if sponsors could be found, the research might even bring in a little extra money through government grants.

Over time, grant revenue has become increasingly important and businesses have begun enlisting universities to increase their knowledge base and gain competitive advantage. This has become ever more significant as government sponsorship of academic research has dropped by 60% over the past thirty years.

Unfortunately, in these tough economic times, with endowments shrinking and costs going up, a number of top universities have found it difficult to refuse close to a billion dollars in funding from one particular industry sector: big oil, with more than the usual amount of strings attached. It appears that these universities have decided to sell out to big oil’s aggressive campaign to commandeer public opinion.

A study by the Center for American Progress, analyzing a number of research and development agreements between oil companies and major universities found the oil companies taking full advantage of the universities’ desperate financial condition, and demanding terms that severely limit the universities’ ability to mediate the research or control the way it will be used.
Why would the oil companies do this, when they already have their own multimillion dollar research facilities?

Could it have something to do with greening their public image?
Let’s take a look at some of these agreements and what is unusual about them.

According to the report:
• Nine of the 10 university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the university-industry alliance. Four actually give the industry sponsors full governance control.
• Eight agreed to let the sponsor or sponsors to fully control both the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.
• None of the agreements require that faculty research proposals be evaluated and awarded funding based on independent expert peer review, the traditional method for awarding academic and scientific research grants based on scientific merit.
• 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.

Who are the companies? Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, and ExxonMobil.

What are the schools? 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.
Why would the these companies feel the need wrest control of the governing bodies, ignore conflicts of interest and insist on being able to hand-pick the researchers in areas of research as controversial and potentially as expensive and lucrative as climate change? Do I really have to ask?

With so many billions at stake in sorting out our energy future, the ability to cite “independent university research” will surely be a powerful tool for persuading lawmakers and swaying public opinion. How many people read the fine print these days to see who or what was behind the research?

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • John

    Academia has been a bastion of misinformation for centuries. In the periods when the church held sway, few scholars were able to contradict dogma in any manner. It is distressing that industry is using our universities to their own ends, but may be of little consequence in a country where a third of of the population don’t accept evolution.