Does This Research Have an Agenda?

Report attacks Koch-funded Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University as a pro-fossil-fuel-industry idea launderer. University and Koch deny the charge.

June 3, 2019
 

The Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University is “a key cog in Charles Koch’s master plan,” according to a new report by that name from Public Citizen.

The report’s subtitle, “How the Purportedly Unbiased [Center] Advances an Agenda to Deregulate America,” pretty much sums up Public Citizen’s position: like many professors, the group questions the Charles Koch Foundation’s growing influence on academe -- and wonders whether the academics Koch funds are helping it push a specific political agenda in the name of supporting academic research.

With respect to the George Washington center in particular, Public Citizen is concerned that Charles Koch -- who co-owns the petrochemical giant Koch Industries -- is benefiting from the center’s regulation-critical stance on fossil fuel emissions.

Both George Washington and the Koch foundation deny anything but legitimate research is happening. Koch has acknowledged that some of its earlier funding agreements with university researchers had provisions that violated academic norms, such as say in faculty hires. But it says those provisions are a thing of the past and that researchers must be free to pursue their research, wherever it takes them.

Public Citizen is a public interest advocacy nonprofit with offices in Washington, D.C., and Texas. It was founded by the former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, but he has had nothing official to do with the organization since the 1980s. Its overall mission is to check corporate influence in policy decisions -- arguably an agenda in its own right.

‘Remarkably Consistent’ Antiregulatory Views

Public Citizen bases its conclusions in part on an analysis of public statements by the George Washington center’s researchers on government regulation, from 2013 to 2018. Many of these comments were analyses of various regulatory proposals, submitted to government agencies as public comments.

“Although public comments submitted by [center] researchers carry a disclaimer that they represent the views of the individual researchers” and not the center, the report says, “they are remarkably consistent in the antiregulatory views they express.”

All of the comments related to overarching regulatory policy recommended changes that would result in less regulation in the future. Ninety-six percent of comments on stringency of regulations recommended less regulation or maintaining current levels.

“When characterizing broad regulatory trends, [center] researchers habitually cite studies … that feed a narrative that regulations are excessive and burdensome. Meanwhile, these researchers typically ignore or downplay the benefits of regulations or dangers of underregulating,” the report says. “These omissions are especially notable because the RSC was formed in 2009, just as the nation was crawling out of a catastrophic recession that was almost indisputably caused by gaps in the regulation of financial derivatives and a failure of regulators to enforce rules on mortgage lending.”

Many comments were also authored or coauthored by people with past or present affiliations with Koch-funded organizations, according to the study, including centers at George Mason University -- the most Koch-funded campus.

Susan Dudley, the center’s director, is accused of repeatedly stating that federal agencies publish tens of thousands of new regulations each year, when the actual number is closer to 4,000. And that lower figure is misleading, the report says, since it defines regulation by the broadest possible terms. Even so, the number has actually fallen to less than half of what it was in the 1970s. Dudley also wrote in Forbes that regulatory spending rose from $3.4 billion in 1960 to $70 billion. But that 2016 column did not mention what her own underlying research found -- that homeland security spending accounted for half of the increase, according to Public Citizen.

Center researchers have otherwise used misleading or discredited data to back their ideas, the report says, and they ignore facts that contradict their antiregulatory outlook, such as that clean air and efficiency regulations result in tangible benefits for the environment and consumers and can spur business innovation.

Public Citizen also is concerned with the center’s funding. While the center doesn’t fully disclose its funding sources, publicly available information shows that Koch, the libertarian Searle Freedom Trust and the ExxonMobil Foundation have all contributed $1 million, the report says. Other group and individual founders have antiregulation stances, including with respect to pollution.

Public Citizen recommends that George Washington either close the center or take steps to ensure that it’s not “merely serving as a cog in an industry-backed campaign to attack regulation.” Ways forward include disclosing all of the center’s funding arrangements, including any “promises” it has made in funding proposals.

“We recognize -- even celebrate -- the rights of others to disagree with us,” the report says. “But it is not appropriate for George Washington, or any university, to enable a corporate-funded, antiregulatory group to masquerade as a neutral center of academic inquiry.”

‘Fostering Open Inquiry’

Dudley, the center’s director, did not respond to a request for comment directly. The university said in a statement that it “values rigorous research and academic freedom” and “strives for ideological diversity by fostering open inquiry across its many departments and disciplines.”

The center in question is a chartered academic center within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, the university said, whose mission is to “improve regulatory policy through research, education and outreach.” Center scholars publish their research in respected, peer-reviewed academic journals, and their “expertise and achievements are recognized by leading organizations in their fields,” including the American Bar Association and the Southern Economics Association, the university said.

The center also supports graduate Trachtenberg students through research opportunities, stipends that allow them to take unpaid internships in government agencies, and career guidance. Moreover, its "well-attended events feature insights on regulatory policy and practice from diverse individuals across the ideological spectrum, including members of Congress, high-ranking officials from each of the last six administrations, international diplomats and academics, and legal, policy and economic scholars," the university said.

As for support, governments, foundations, companies and individuals fund the center. But it "does not accept funding that is conditioned on hiring (or retaining) particular individuals, nor that influences the content or conclusions of its work," the university said. George Washington’s Policy on Conflicts of Interest and Commitment for Faculty and Investigators says that a faculty member or investigator’s financial involvements may not "affect, or reasonably appear to have a significant potential to affect, his or her academic responsibilities, or compromise basic scholarly activity or freedom of action." Per policy, violations could include "entering into an agreement to limit or delay the free publication, or access to the results, of sponsored research."

George Washington’s Office of Sponsored Projects reviews all sponsor agreements and would "not accept funding from any sponsor whose goals run contrary to the university’s code of conduct," according to the institution.

No Contradiction in Findings

Taylor Lincoln, a researcher with Public Citizen and the report’s lead author, said the university’s response doesn’t “appear in any way to contradict the findings of our report.” The university itself may strive for intellectual diversity, he said, but the center’s work “in no way reflects that.”

“The consensus view in the U.S. is that regulation is necessary,” Lincoln said, while nearly 100 percent of center publications come out “squarely against” it.

Calling many of the center’s funders, including the Koch foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “special interests,” Lincoln said that the university’s statement about diverse funding sources is meaningless without a detailed disclosure of funding agreements. He also called the center’s federal internship program a “red flag,” in that it reflects a desire to pump intellectually aligned people into government.

“Many Koch-funded scholars have said that their funders do not tell them what to write and so forth,” Lincoln said. Yet they're also “undeniably aware of what the Kochs' wishes are.” So “we should trust our common sense. What we see again and again is that researchers who receive Koch funding practice a brand of libertarianism that is almost indistinct from the interests of Koch Industries.”

In response to ongoing criticism and skepticism about its increasing involvement in academe, the Koch foundation has pledged increased transparency about its involvement in academe. It recently pledged to include "major" grant agreements on its website, but George Washington's is not among the 20 or so listed thus far. And that involvement continues to grow. The foundation gave $90 million in grants in 2017, with the bulk of it going to college and universities faculty members across hundreds of campuses, according to its 2018 giving report (at the time of the report, 2018 giving had already surpassed $90 million).

Beyond academic research, the foundation says it supports “courageous collaborations” among people of different perspectives, as well as criminal justice reform, foreign policy issues, economic opportunity, technology and innovation, and K-12 education.

Much of the academic research funded by Koch nationwide does side against regulation, and members of the Koch organization have previously talked about involvement with academe as a kind of political strategy. But Koch also has supported other kinds of academic efforts, such as the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. That institute, founded in 2016, is perhaps best known for its successful legal fight to deny President Trump the right to block Twitter users on his account. John Hardin, director of university relations at the foundation, has also spoken out against conservative-backed efforts in some states at legislating free inquiry on campus.

“With a diversity of viewpoints and ideas comes tension among members of the campus community,” Hardin wrote in a New York Times op-ed, condemning model legislation on free speech written by the Goldwater Institute and comparing aspects of it to mandatory minimum sentences that have increased incarceration rates. "It is up to each school to navigate that challenge to uphold the core values of a liberal education."

Professors ‘Call the Shots’

Tonya Mullins, a spokesperson for the Charles Koch Institute, said in a statement that the institute supports scholars with a “long track record of high-quality work on issues of consequence at more than 350 schools.”

Faculty members “call the shots and follow their research wherever it may lead -- as they should,” she said. “That openness is characteristic of and imperative to academic discovery. We’ll continue to speak out against tactics like this aimed at harassing scholars rather than engaging issues on their substance -- wherever those attacks originate.”

Mullins also said that Koch’s grants adhere to the “highest standards of academic independence, and we post our grant agreements and giving standards online so that others can build on the work we support.”

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