Center for American Progress

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

RELEASE: Big Oil Bankrolls Research Bias at Colorado 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. This includes a $6 million industry consortium housed at four Colorado-based universities and research institutions, known as C2B2 (the Colorado Center for Biofuels and Biorefining). 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 Colorado have paid a steep price for this dependence on private funding. Washburn relied on two independent legal experts to evaluate 10 large-scale, university research agreements funded by Big Oil, including the C2B2 alliance agreement, headquartered at the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University, Colorado School of Mines, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, which currently has 22 industry sponsors. This review found a disturbing trend of inadequate contractual protection from corporate influence at top-ranked research universities, including at the C2B2 alliance agreement.

Big Oil disregarded peer review. None of the 10 research alliance agreements required impartial, scientific peer review procedures for the evaluation of faculty research proposals or awarding of funding.

Big Oil assumed control of academic governing bodies. Most of the universities surrendered control of the main governing body charged with directing the academic research alliance, leaving academic self-governance insecure. At Colorado’s C2B2, there was some attempt to preserve academic governing control in one portion of C2B2 in the contract agreement. But, in practice, based on written comments from C2B2’s executive director, it appears that the industry sponsors now largely dominate alliance governance.

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 governing boards.

Big Oil managed research proposal selection. Most of the 10 alliance agreements allowed oil industry sponsors to control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals. At Colorado’s C2B2, there was some attempt in the contract agreement to preserve academic control over research selection. But in practice, according to written comments provided by C2B2’s executive director, the 22 industry sponsors now dominate the process for evaluating and selecting faculty research.

Big Oil monopolized the results of academic research. Most of the 10 alliance agreements granted the oil industry sponsors upfront, exclusive rights to academic discoveries, often with only weak protections for faculty to share data and results with other academic institutions. However, there were some notable exceptions, including the “shared research” side of C2B2, where only nonexclusive licenses are permitted. That being said, C2B2 agreement permits its sponsors upfront, exclusive rights to research on the “sponsored” side of C2B2. It also allows sponsors to delay academic publications for an extremely lengthy period: up to 210 days.

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].