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Big Oil Bankrolls Research at U.S. Universities

By Cat Warren

Last month, the Center for American Progress released a new report, Big Oil Goes to College, documenting how, over the past decade, oil companies and other energy firms have underwritten more than $800 million in energy research at prominent U.S. universities, with few safeguards in place to protect academic autonomy, scientific objectivity, or scholarly independence.

In this 221-page investigation, author Jennifer Washburn explores how and why the energy industry is outsourcing more of its commercial research to U.S. universities and builds the case for strengthening contract standards and federal guidelines for all public-private research collaborations.
Washburn relied on independent legal experts to evaluate ten large-scale academic-industry alliance agreements, many lasting from five to ten years. This analysis uncovered substantial energy-industry influence at fifteen partnering universities:

  • In nine of the ten alliance agreements, the university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the research alliance. Four of the ten alliances granted the industry sponsors full governance control.
  • Eight of the ten agreements permit the corporate sponsors to control both the evaluation and the selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.
  • None of the ten agreements requires faculty research proposals to be evaluated and awarded funding based on independent, expert peer review, blurring the lines between independent academic research and “commercial research for hire.” 
  • Eight of the ten alliance agreements fail to specify transparently how faculty may apply for alliance funding and what the selection criteria will be.
  • Nine of the ten agreements call for no specific management of financial conflicts of interest related to the alliance and its research functions. (At the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute, headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley, Washburn identified extensive conflict-of-interest concerns.)

“Evidence continues to mount that industry influence—from pharmaceuticals to agriculture to energy—is growing on campus,” says Washburn. “It is time for faculty and universities to insist on far stronger baseline contract standards to protect the universities’ core academic mission and their ability to perform high-quality, independent research that the public can trust.”

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