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 contracts worth more than $35 million at the University of Texas at Austin, Rice University, and Texas A&M University. 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 Texas have paid a steep price for their reliance on private oil money. Washburn relied on two independent legal experts to evaluate 10 large-scale, university alliance agreements funded by Big Oil, including Chevron’s five-year, $5.2 million alliance with Texas A&M, and a $30 million consortium with 10 energy companies housed at UT Austin and Rice University. This review found a disturbing trend of inadequate contractual protection from corporate influence:
Big Oil disregarded peer review. None of the 10 research alliance agreements required impartial, scientific peer review for evaluation of faculty proposals or awarding of funding. At UT Austin and Rice, peer review panels may be used, but they are dominated by industry appointees and used solely at the discretion of the sponsors.
Big Oil assumed control of academic governing bodies. Most of the 10 university alliance agreements—including in Texas—surrendered control of the main governing body charged with directing the academic research alliance, leaving academic self-governance insecure. At UT Austin, the contract allows 10 industry sponsors to control all 10 voting-member seats.
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 or governing boards.
Big Oil managed the proposal selection process. Most of the contracts, including the Texas alliance contract, allowed oil industry sponsors to control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals. At Texas universities, the contract allows industry sponsors to exert either total or strong control over research selection, using industry-defined criteria.
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, with only weak protections for faculty to share data and results with other academic institutions. This was true of the Texas A&M agreement, which gives Chevron an automatic two-year exclusive commercial license. There were notable exceptions, however, including the UT Austin-Rice alliance agreement, which encourages broad knowledge sharing. (Texas A&M initially refused to provide a copy of its Chevron contract to CAP, citing corporate confidentiality. Later the Texas attorney general’s office enforced compliance with Texas’s open record laws.)
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@example.com.