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, including a ConocoPhillips contract worth $22.5 million at Iowa State University, a new report from the Center for American Progress reveals. 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 this 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 have paid a steep price for their reliance on private funding streams. Washburn relied on two independent legal experts to evaluate 10 large-scale, university alliance agreements funded by Big Oil, including the ConocoPhillips-Iowa State contract. This review found a disturbing trend of inadequate contractual protections from corporate influence at top-ranked research universities, including Iowa State:
Big Oil disregarded peer review. None of the 10 research alliance agreements required impartial, scientific peer review procedures for the evaluation of proposals or awarding of funding.
Big Oil assumed control of academic governing bodies. Most of the university alliance agreements surrendered control of the main governing body charged with directing the academic research alliance, leaving academic self-governance insecure. In the Iowa State contract, majority academic control was nowhere assured.
Failure to address conflicts of interest: Not one of the 10 Big Oil agreements called for regulation of financial conflicts of interest on university research selection committees and governing boards.
Big Oil managed research proposal selection. In most of the contracts, universities allowed oil industry sponsors to control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals. At Iowa State, the contract allows ConocoPhillips to control the evaluation and selection of research awards over eight years.
Big Oil monopolized the results of academic research. Most of the 10 alliance agreements (including Iowa State’s) granted oil industry sponsors upfront, exclusive commercial rights to academic discoveries, often with only weak protections for faculty to share data and results with other academic institutions, though there were notable exceptions. At Iowa State, the alliance agreement grants ConocoPhillips a 90-day exclusive review of all academic inventions, and highly favorable royalty rates.
The United States must stay competitive in the global clean energy technology race. “Big Oil Goes to College” includes specific recommendations to keep American 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@example.com.