Skip to main content

Does Big Oil Have Too Much Influence Over Academic Research?

Research contracts between universities and the oil sector often fail to provide sufficient academic control and independence, a new report suggests.

This is giving a great deal of influence to Big Oil as it increasingly turns to the academic community to perform its commercial research and development, according to the report, "Big Oil Goes to College."

The report, produced by the Center for American Progress, is based on independent analyses of 10 major energy research collaboration contracts between universities and oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips.

"Because Big Oil seems poised to play such an important role in advancing cutting-edge energy technology development, it is critical that policymakers and the public better understand the implications and effects of these public-private partnerships," the report said. "This report asks hard questions about the consequences of allowing private corporations to sponsor research at academic institutions that pride themselves on using high-quality scientific as well as independent peer-reviewed methods to come to impartial results."

The analyses found that universities often give up majority control over the governing body in charge of the research alliance, and sometimes even give up full control. The contracts failed to require peer review, and most universities cede majority control over selecting which projects to undertake.

"In short, the 10 contracts examined in this report indicate that the balance between Boi Oil's commercial interests and university's commitment to independent academic research, high-quality science, and academic freedom seems to have tiled in favor of Big Oil," the report said.

Several universities analyzed in the report defended themselves Friday. In a San Francisco Chronicle news story, University of California at Berkeley (UCB), University of California at Davis (UCD) and Stanford University said the report's author failed to go beyond the contracts to see whether any conflicts of interest actually occurred.

The report criticized UCB for leaving out conflict-of-interest language in the contract for UCB's Energy Biosciences Institute and BP. Bob Price, the school's associate vice chancellor for research, however, told the Chronicle that UCB's conflict-of-interest policies already cover research activities.

Adding such protections to research contracts "would make our policies negotiable with the outside," Price said.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user richardmasoner.
 

More on this topic