On Friday, July 16, Ben Raines, a reporter for Mobile, Alabama’s Press-Register, published a story  detailing extensive efforts by BP to employ scientists engaged in (or likely to engage in) research about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Inside Higher Ed has since conducted independent interviews for its own coverage.  The contracts offered by the giant company, according to both sources, restrict the scientists from publishing research results, sharing them with other scientists, or even talking about them for as long as three years, a serious restraint in the midst of an ongoing crisis.
Both during the immediate crisis and for an extended period as government leaders and the courts figure out how to respond to the Gulf tragedy, the work these scientists do will essentially belong to BP, which will be free to suppress it or characterize it in any way it chooses. Faculty members under contract to BP, meanwhile, would be unable to testify against the company in court and would be available to testify on the company’s behalf. Several faculty members in the area have confirmed to the American Association of University Professors that they have been offered contracts by BP in exchange for restrictive confidentiality clauses. A notably chilling provision directs contracted scientists to communicate through BP’s lawyers, thus raising the possibility that research findings will be constrained by lawyer-client privilege.
The oil spill is not only a catastrophic economic and environmental disaster for the Gulf region; it also has major implications for energy policy in both the United States and the rest of the world. The ability to share research results promptly and freely is not only a basic tenet of academic freedom; in this case, it is also critical to the health of the region and the world. While more investigative work is needed, the very prospect of an interested corporation worth billions of dollars blocking the free exchange of university research and controlling the work scientists choose to do is deeply disturbing. If knowledgeable scientists cannot testify in court, the ability of injured parties to win just compensation is also jeopardized. But the long-term threat to American society is still more grave: we need independent faculty voices, perhaps more so now — in a knowledge-based society — than ever before.
In its founding 1915 Declaration, the AAUP warned of the “danger of restrictions upon the expression of opinions” that “call into question the moral legitimacy or social expediency of economic conditions or commercial practices in which large vested interests are involved.” Our 2004 “Statement on Corporate Funding of Academic Research” establishes the fundamental standard: “Such contracts should explicitly provide for the open communication of research results, not subject to the sponsor’s permission for publication.”
Universities that prohibit faculty members from doing research that violates this principle, in my view, are protecting academic freedom, not restricting it. Of course in recommending that universities enforce this principle I am going beyond current AAUP policy. The world has changed. The increasing impact of corporate funding on the integrity of faculty research is among the changes higher education must confront. The decision about whether to sign restrictive contracts is not simply a matter of individual choice. It has broad implications for higher education and for the society at large.
At least one university has refused an institution-wide contract with BP for exactly these reasons. Many individual faculty members are declining BP offers or withdrawing from existing ones. Perhaps this is the time to reexamine the increasing role corporations are playing in funding and controlling university research. Universities should work with faculty to set ethical standards for industry collaboration that champion the public interest and discourage faculty members from selling their freedom of speech and research to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, we urge other news media to join the effort to interview area scientists, gather copies of BP contracts, and publish the results. This story needs to be told in full. Universities should also consider where the public interest lies before permitting faculty members to sign contracts that limit the free exchange of information and bar public testimony. BP itself should certainly invest in research related to the spill, but it should do so without curtailing either faculty members’ free speech rights or their academic freedom. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to all of our health.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.