Center for American Progress

RELEASE: Big Oil Bankrolls Research Bias at California Universities
Press Release

RELEASE: Big Oil Bankrolls Research Bias at California Universities

Report Finds Big Oil Grants to Major Universities May Compromise Integrity of Scientific Research

Washington, D.C. — Based on a detailed analysis of university-industry contracts, the world’s largest oil companies have funded more than $800 million of potentially compromised energy research at American universities over the last decade, a new report from the Center for American Progress reveals. In California alone, this includes contracts with BP, Chevron, and other firms worth nearly $750 million. Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and other major energy firms—informally known as "Big Oil"—have underwritten research at top-tier universities with few contractual protections for scientific objectivity or scholarly independence. In "Big Oil Goes to College," independent researcher Jennifer Washburn lays out this disturbing trend and makes the case for strengthening guidelines for federally funded research programs, and improving contract standards for public-private research partnerships.

Washburn attributes the surge in industry-sponsored projects on campus in part to inadequate federal funding for energy research over the last 30 years. From 1993 to 2006, U.S. government spending on all energy-related R&D averaged $3.6 billion per year—60 percent less than the $9 billion the U.S. government spent on energy R&D in 1979. In response, many U.S. universities have turned to Big Oil to bridge the funding gap.

But research universities in California have paid a steep price for their reliance on private energy industry funding. Washburn relied on two independent legal experts to evaluate 10 large-scale, university research agreements funded by Big Oil, including three major contracts at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University. This review found a disturbing trend of  inadequate contractual protection from corporate influence at California’s top- flight universities, including inadequate contractual standards to protect research independence and academic objectivity:

Big Oil disregarded peer review. The written research agreements at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and Stanford do not require impartial, scientific peer review for the evaluation of faculty research proposals and the awarding of funding. At Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project, or GCEP, peer review panels currently are convened, but only at the discretion of ExxonMobil and the other industry sponsors (who control GCEP’s management committee). At the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute, or EBI, headquartered at Berkeley, an internal faculty committee preselects which faculty research proposals will be prioritized and sent out for independent “technical reviews.” This report found that most faculty appointed to this selection committee have potential financial conflicts of interest that call into question their ability to judge research fairly or impartially.

Big Oil assumed control of academic governing bodies. All three of California’s alliance agreements failed to preserve majority academic control over the main governing body charged with directing the academic research alliance, leaving academic self-governance insecure. In the UC Davis contract, UC Davis failed to establish any clear governance arrangements with Chevron; In the UC Berkeley contract, UC Berkeley granted BP veto power over all major governance and research decisions; and in the Stanford contract, Stanford ceded governing control to ExxonMobil and its three other industry sponsors by allowing only the corporate sponsors to serve as voting members of the management committee.

Failure to address conflicts of interest: Not one of the 10 Big Oil agreements called for regulation of conflicts of interest on university research selection committees and on governing boards. At UC Berkeley, two of the top academic scientists affiliated with the EBI (one now serves as the EBI’s director, the other stepped down) hold major financial stakes in outside companies that stand to profit from the EBI’s biofuels research.

Big Oil managed research proposal selection. Most of the 10 university alliance agreements permitted oil industry sponsors to control the final evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals.  Under the UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and Stanford contracts, the industry sponsors are required to approve all final research awards.

Big Oil monopolized the results of academic research. Chevron and BP both enjoy upfront, exclusive rights to alliance research generated at UC Davis and UC Berkeley (and its affiliated academic centers), respectively. BP is also exempt from federal requirements that these research alliance inventions be manufactured primarily within the United States. For nearly six years, under the original alliance agreement, Stanford’s GCEP sponsors enjoyed a lengthy five-year commercial exclusivity period but in 2008 this controversial provision was removed from the GCEP contract, leaving the academic research environment far more open. Under the UC Davis contract,  Chevron is permitted to delay publications for an exceptionally long period: up to 120 days. The Stanford contract does not impose any outer limit on publication delays.

The United States must stay competitive in the global clean energy technology race. “Big Oil Goes to College” includes specific recommendations to keep America’s academic energy research both independent and scientifically rigorous, and its green technologies competitive. At the federal level, to protect the independence of academic research, the report urges government agencies to attach stronger contract language to the receipt of all taxpayer-financed research grants, whether issued alone or in tandem with corporate matching funds. At American universities, the report calls on faculty councils to play a larger role in the oversight of large-scale industrial research alliances and contractually require that all funding and selection of research be subject to rigorous, impartial peer review.

Finally, the report advocates the launching of a new "Apollo Project," similar to the one that put American astronauts on the moon in the 1960s. President Barack Obama, during his first year in office, already boosted energy research considerably. A targeted increase in federal funding for clean energy, efficiency, and climate research can help free our nation from its dependence on oil, guide the future direction of U.S. energy research and development, and stimulate U.S. global competitiveness.

To read full report, click here.

To speak with the report’s author, Jennifer Washburn, please contact Anna Soellner at 202.478.5322 or [email protected].