United States: Corporations gain control of uni research

The following is an abridged statement from the US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released on January 21.

US universities may be jeopardising their academic integrity by giving oil, gas, and other polluting industries unprecedented influence over the research those companies fund on campus.

CSPI surveyed nine major universities that recently inaugurated industry-funded research programs on biofuels or other aspects of global warming. In return for accepting grants from industry, the universities are variously letting corporate representatives sit on governing boards (six out of nine universities), giving companies first rights to intellectual property (five), or letting companies review and possibly delay publication of studies (five).

In some cases, such as Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California-Davis, the universities give corporations a direct role in deciding which specific research projects are funded. And while industry enjoys the green patina that sponsoring university research into global warming confers, companies actually spend very little on research and development, particularly in relation to clean alternative energy technologies.

"It's a cheap subterfuge for carbon-emitting companies", said Merrill Goozner, director of the CSPI's Integrity in Science Project. "They get the prestige of associating themselves with major respected universities, yet can control the direction of research and get first rights to intellectual property while delaying any finding that doesn't help the bottom line. Meanwhile, the PR blitz surrounding these programs masks the fact that the carbon-emitting industries actually are spending much less on research and development than they did 10 or 15 years ago."

Among the grants highlighted in CSPI's report, Big Oil U.:

• In order to manage a British Petroleum grant of US$500 million over 10 years to the University of California-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 right to a royalty-free licence 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 perk far beyond Stanford's walls.

• The Georgia Institute of Technology's five-year, $12 million grant from Chevron Corp. for biofuels research eschews open competition for grants and gives 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 an unusually long period of three to four months to review research results to remove confidential business information and to identify potential intellectual property worthy of filing for patents.

According to CSPI, the industry-academic partnerships highlighted in Big Oil U. represent a strategic shift for the industry. Instead of discrediting the science behind global warming, companies increasingly want to be seen as part of the solution.

Between 1998 and 2005, ExxonMobil gave more than $19 million to groups that promoted the idea that global warming was a hoax. Yet beginning in 2006, ExxonMobil ads proudly touted the company's funding of the Stanford program: "Today an energy company and a leading university share a common goal. The common good." Another ExxonMobil ad bore the Stanford University seal.

But David Ritson, emeritus professor of physics at Stanford, calls the program a fig leaf: "It does play into the hands of the Bush administration's view that if we just leave it up to industry and the private sector, everything will be fine."

At some programs, corporate sponsors may be able to influence the direction of research by evaluating proposals before school officials decide which projects receive funding.

Corporate sponsors have also been given exclusive rights to
commercialise any inventions that result from the program's research, which has the appearance of transforming the university from a bastion of independent scholarship into a contract research organisation for industry.

ExxonMobil and other corporate sponsors are given the right to delay publication of research while they finalise patent applications for such inventions.

CSPI also examined corporate sponsored energy programs at Princeton, MIT, Rice, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon. Princeton, whose Carbon Mitigation Initiative is supported by BP and Ford, has strong no-strings-attached funding policies to ensure the academic freedom of its researchers, according to CSPI.

MIT has strong policies in place, but, coincidence or not, the latest reports from its Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change have supported coal and nuclear power.

CSPI recommends that universities accepting corporate funding adopt policies to protect their autonomy and preserve their researchers' autonomy. Those recommendations include:

• Prohibiting representatives of corporate donors from sitting on research programs' governing boards;

• Prohibiting industry donors from controlling the content and
direction of research programs;

• Eliminating "first rights" intellectual property clauses from donor agreements; and

• Ensuring that company representatives cannot make substantive editorial changes in manuscripts or delay their publication.

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