From the President: Corporate-Funded Research

By Cary Nelson

Shortly after the news broke that BP was issuing research contracts with unusually restrictive provisions to scientists doing research on the Gulf oil spill, I published a statement of concern in Inside Higher Ed. In its historic 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the AAUP had warned of the risk that powerful economic interests might seek to limit the open dissemination of research results that were critical to a democratic society.

Now that fear was being writ large across an ongoing economic, social, and environmental disaster. The contracts that BP was offering to scientists replaced the typical three-month embargo on the publication of corporate-funded research with limits of up to three years—a twelvefold increase. Scientists funded by BP would be prohibited from testifying against the corporation and had to be available to testify on BP’s behalf if the corporation’s lawyers thought the scientists’ research was to BP’s benefit. The average sea turtle or oil cleanup worker might not be able to wait three years for critical research results. Academic freedom and the public interest were equally at risk.

It was not long before a second shoe dropped. Through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process, multiple federal agencies were also issuing research contracts to scientists that would restrict their right to publish or discuss their research. NRDA restrictions had earlier proven problematic following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. BP and the NRDA would be locked in a legal battle over the amount of damages BP should be assessed, and they both had an interest in playing their cards close to their vests. Faculty members and most members of the public have other interests. So do Congress and regulatory agencies, which might want to be fully informed much earlier.

For a while—until the corporation’s efforts received a good deal of negative press coverage and BP began to back down—it seemed that BP was seeking to place a comprehensive lock on Gulf oil-spill research. Then, BP and the NRDA unwittingly joined forces to do just that—especially as reports surfaced from independent scientists that government agencies were blocking their access to Gulf research sites and even confiscating notes and environmental samples.

This remarkable story has highlighted the need to review, then likely revise or supplement, the ethical and professional guidelines embodied in the AAUP’s Statement on Corporate Funding of Academic Research and its On Preventing Conflicts of Interest in Government-Sponsored Research at Universities. By the time this column appears, the Center for American Progress will have published a new report by Jennifer Washburn on energy-company-funded university research, which raises other serious questions.

Have faculty independence and peer review been compromised by externally funded research? Has an increasingly complex series of faculty-business entanglements and reward systems put faculty integrity in question? What threats are posed by the far less regulated system of faculty consulting contracts? Should there be a firewall between contracts that fund research and those that remunerate trial testimony? Are there contract provisions universities should prohibit in order to protect their institutional mission and academic freedom? Where does the dividing line fall between an individual professor’s freedom to do research and higher education’s collective need to protect the free dissemination of research results? Should higher education groups intervene when state or federal contracts limit academic freedom? What special dangers exist when entire departments sign restrictive research contracts? Does corporate- or government-funded research that limits faculty access to comprehensive data about a given project pose special ethical and professional problems? Should all corporate contracts with universities be published online, so they are transparent to both the campus and the public? Should professors be prohibited from publishing ghostwritten papers? How should guidelines differentiate between public and private institutions?

Increased reliance on corporate funding—combined with the sheer power of corporations whose financial resources in some cases dwarf those of entire nations—requires us to rethink the advice we give and the policies we recommend. More detailed guidelines from the AAUP should help professors and their institutions negotiate better contracts with corporations and with the government, thereby securing faculty interests, protecting universities’ missions, and serving the public good.

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