Research Deals Under Microscope

October 15, 2010

Major public universities risk losing the public trust by giving big oil companies undue influence over faculty research on alternative energy, according to a report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress.

The report, “Big Oil Goes to College,” stops well short of saying that the likes of BP have muzzled professors or steered research toward the company’s desired outcomes, but CAP expresses serious concerns that time-honored principles of peer review and scholarly independence are being given short shrift in partnerships between industry and academe.

CAP, which describes itself as a supporter of the progressive movement, reviewed 10 contractual agreements, totaling $883 million, between 13 research universities and two federal research labs. Rather than reviewing individual consulting jobs that might involve a professor or two, the report concerns itself with often years-long relationships between universities and corporate partners that take the form of institutes conducting major initiatives with full university backing.

The CAP review of contracts found that the governing bodies of these alliances are often heavily controlled by corporate partners, who have considerable decision-making authority over which projects will be funded -- in many cases without the benefit of peer review. Such agreements, said Jennifer Washburn, the report's author, run afoul of basic academic principles, which are designed to ensure impartiality and disinterested scholarship on behalf of the greater public good – not the narrow or pecuniary interests of corporations.

“I think that’s troubling,” she said. “Why is an academic institution setting up a 10-year research alliance without addressing the issue of fairly and impartially evaluating faculty research proposals?”

A preliminary version of the report was leaked to some of the included universities in July, and those mentioned within it quickly fired back. Many argued that the contracts themselves do not reflect the broader research practices and principles of the institutions involved, and the full report released Thursday contains some rebuttals from administrators who take issue with CAP’s conclusions.

Among the report’s major findings:

  • Nine of 10 energy-research agreements gave industry majority control over the alliances’ central governing bodies, and four of those gave industry full governance control.
  • Eight of 10 agreements allow corporate sponsors to fully control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.
  • None of the 10 required faculty proposals to be peer reviewed independently before being awarded funding.

Stark as those findings may sound, several university officials said CAP would have found more satisfactory answers had its researchers bothered to look for them. Specifically, Stanford University said it conducts rigorous peer review, despite a bullet point declaration in the report that none of the universities do.

Among the other institutions taking issue with the report is the University of California at Berkeley, which said the center failed to consider the university’s broader governance structure that would come into play in overseeing its Energy Biosciences Institute. The EBI is a joint partnership between BP, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

While CAP argues that the contracts between industry and academe ought to spell out how issues like academic freedom will be handled at EBI, Berkeley officials retorted that the contracts couldn’t possibly cover every issue that might emerge.

“By that logic, we should’ve included a bunch of provisions having to do with arson, grand theft and God knows what else, but of course we don’t because there’s a regulatory environment that the contract exists within,” said Dan Mogulof, spokesman for Berkeley.

The CAP report takes particular issue with the composition of EBI’s governing board, which includes four academic partners and four BP representatives. Since a majority vote is required to approve a board measure, such as the funding of research projects, the collective academic and corporate sides of the board are both effectively granted veto power if they vote as a bloc.

The 4-4 governing board structure at EBI appears to differ from the standard set by faculty of Cornell University, which CAP repeatedly references as a model of best practices in an arena where few if any formal standards exist. In a 2004 analysis of “Strategic Corporate Alliances,” a Cornell faculty committee described a governing model that would be appropriately slanted in favor of the academic partners.

“The corporate sponsor appropriately has a voice in management decisions,” the committee stated, according to CAP’s report; “[h]owever, the sponsor should not be in the position of … having equal representation on the [SCA’s governing body].”

While Berkeley’s structure would give an academic voting bloc the power of veto, the CAP report questions whether that would ever happen.

“Because BP retains overwhelming control over the EBI’s finances, as its sole sponsor, it remains highly uncertain whether the academic side of the EBI will feel equally at liberty to exercise its veto power, since this could alienate BP and jeopardize the EBI’s long-term research support,” the report states.

Mogulof said the EBI board has unanimously approved every slate of research projects that has thus far come before it. He added that all of the proposals are presented as a slate for an up or down vote, which would mean BP could not selectively pick the projects it likes and throw out the ones that make the corporation squeamish for some reason.

“They don’t have the ability to cherry-pick individual projects,” Mogulof said. “There are really careful safeguards here.”

At Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP), however, the four corporate sponsor members that make up the management committee do indeed have the final say on which research projects will be funded, university officials confirm. That said, the project’s director asserted that the CAP report is riddled with factual errors, and noted its failure to mention that the management team has approved all of the projects recommended thus far by the GSEP Analysis Staff, which includes a mix of postdocs, permanent staff and team leaders from Stanford and Cal Tech.

“In terms of who does all the project selection, basically the GSEP staff at Stanford, we’re the ones that pick the projects that should be funded,” said Sally Benson, the director. “We then make the recommendation to the management committee. They decide whether they will fund that or not, and in every single time over 12 rounds of this process they completely agreed with everything we’ve suggested. [But], yes, on paper those are the four votes.”

Those four votes come from ExxonMobil Corp., General Electric Co., Toyota Motor Corp., and Schlumberger Technology Corp., a unit of Schlumberger Ltd.

While the underlying thrust of CAP’s report is that corporate sponsors shouldn’t have complete or even majority control over the kind of research they fund through a university alliance, Benson isn’t so sure she agrees with that conclusion.

“At the end of the day they are funding it. It is entirely their funds,” she said. “From that perspective, it seems reasonable they would have that option [not to fund a project]. Again, on the other hand I think it’s also important that they have chosen to respect the technical recommendations that have been provided by us.”

But by giving corporations that kind of power -- and providing the imprimatur of a major university through a formal long-term partnership -- universities stand to lose credibility, Washburn said. Universities may lose in the short run by negotiating tougher contracts, but the benefits down the road are worth it, she said.

“Universities may lose some income from industry,” Washburn said. “But I think they’re going to lose a lot more if they fundamentally lose their public trust and their ability to continue to carry out rigorous, high-quality independent research that the public can trust.”

The Center For American Progress reviewed contracts at the following institutions:

  • Arizona State University
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • Colorado State University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Iowa State University
  • Rice University
  • Stanford University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of California at Davis
  • University of California at Berkeley
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Texas at Austin

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