Prestigious research universities take big money from Big Oil to fund Climate Change research

(from a paper presented by Center for Science in the Public Interest called “Big Oil U”)

Since 1991, the major oil companies have committed to investing more than $792 million in at least nine major universities in the United States. Leading institutions like MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of California at Berkeley have major collaborative research agreements with the energy industry.
This study identified five major limitations on academic freedom that are occurring in the nine programs. They include:

• Allowing company representatives on governing boards (6 universities)

• Giving industry sponsors first rights to intellectual property (5 universities)

• Allowing industry sponsors a role in deciding what research projects are funded (6 universities)

• Permitting industry review of research before it is published (5 universities)

• Allowing companies to delay publication of research results (5 universities)

For example:

• To manage British Petroleum’s grant of $500 million over 10 years to the

University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute set up a 10-member panel, which includes two scientists from BP, to review all grant proposals; that group’s final list of potential grantees is then submitted to an 8-member governance board made up of four BP officials and four university officials, effectively giving either BP or the university veto power over the direction of the program.

•Stanford University’s 10-year, $225 million Global Climate and Energy

Project, funded by ExxonMobil, Toyota, General Electric, and oil services giant Schlumberger, gives an exclusive, five-year royalty-free license to the companies that fund any research that leads to a university-patented invention. Researchers at 20 universities outside Stanford have applied for grants from the program, thus extending this restriction far beyond Stanford’s walls.

•The Georgia Institute of Technology’s 5-year, $12 million grant from Chevron Corp. for biofuels research eschews open competition for grants and gives the company officials the final review for every project funded by the program. “It’s their money,” said Roger Webb, a retired professor of electrical engineering who runs the program at Georgia Tech.

• Chevron’s 5-year, $25 million grant to the University of California at Davis, also for biofuels research, gives the company three to four months to review research results to remove confidential business information and to identify potential intellectual property worthy of filing for patents.

Our Take:
The oil industry is not alone—it’s likely that every industry, renewable energy included, also funds research. The helpful critique here is that the Center for Science in the Public Interest sheds light on practices that might infringe on scientific freedom. We have seen research that portrays the ethanol industry negatively and which appears to be “made to order” by such sponsors, while the research passes itself off as disinterested science.

One of the great concerns is the very scale of oil industry research funding. One wonders if it is possible for such science to escape the undue influence of its sponsor.

However, we have to observe that, to some extent, the notion of disinterested science is a myth. Funding has to come from somewhere. And if it doesn’t come from a for-profit company, it may be from a not-for-profit actively engaged in wringing money from donors based on how much publicity they can generate about their pet crisis. Even government funding is not entirely free of such bias, because it is awarded by panels of scientists and experts appointed by politicians. Ultimately, what proves any research findings is what happens after publication—when other scientists, representing many different sources of funding, test the original findings and either reduplicate them or repudiate them.

To dismiss the fruit of corporate or industry-funded research out of hand just because of who backs it is a kind of ad hominem argument, a logical falsity. On the other hand, when the media finds research that fits with their own preconceptions, and they present the findings as some kind of established fact at the moment of its publication, before the rest of the scientific community has evaluated the findings—this can lead to widely held opinions that lack a true scientific basis.

This whole process of disseminating research findings needs to be better understood. Among the most serious pitfalls we have seen—the premature spotlight has granted authority to single scientists (and even non-scientists) who make claims about ethanol’s energy input-output ratio (“energy balance”). A non-scientific researcher made claims that U.S. agricultural practices affect land use elsewhere around the globe. Who benefits when such unproven claims are granted some kind of voice of authority?

Do such headlines really serve the public interest? It’s time for the media to temper its sound bites and produce Science Reporting in the Public Interest. They can start by noting in the lead paragraph of every such science story that the findings are initial and require further investigation.


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