BP, Corporate R&D, and the University

Some lessons from the oil spill are simple: public universities should not agree to restrictive contracts that limit research, publication, or transparency.
By Russ Lea

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April 20, 2010, and the days following, provided the world with graphic images of a burning oil rig, a perception that the oil industry and state and federal governments were helpless, and a pervasive sense of the devastation wrought on coastal residents by the rig explosion and the oil spill. The residents of the Gulf Coast soon realized that this oil “spill” was more like an underwater gusher. I will never forget the telephone call I received from a member of the board of trustees at the University of South Alabama. He told me this disaster ought to keep me, as vice president for research, busy and in research funding for years to come. I replied with a nervous chuckle, saying I already had a day job. Little did I know that my day and night job would become the oil spill and little else.

Fortunately for me, I had faculty members who understood the scope of the potential damage to the environment, the wildlife, and the health and psyche of the residents. I received information and briefings at a breakneck pace: our university was more than willing to respond, offer services to the public, conduct new research, and help industry, federal, and state officials deal with immediate and long-term effects. I felt it was my duty to stay connected with emerging news, briefings, and meetings related to the spill. Similarly, our faculty members stayed tightly connected to their colleagues around the Gulf and with the state and federal agencies involved in stopping, containing, and cleaning up the spill.

Within weeks of April 20, BP’s legal teams started approaching faculty members in marine sciences as well as those at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. They discussed providing faculty members with legal assistance, enlisting their help with the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, and conducting BP-funded research. In the initial discussions, BP representatives told faculty members that they could conduct new research but that they could not publish the results or make them available to the public for three years or longer. BP’s approach was unusual in another respect: the company tried to employ academics as consultants and enter into research agreements using the same contract. Our university saw no problem with our professors’ consulting for BP as long as these faculty members disclosed the terms of consultation and as long as BP did not try to control any other research, publications, or intellectual property. But when we finally examined a BP contract, we saw that it clearly stated that the faculty member could continue to do his or her research—as long as it did not conflict with the work conducted for BP. Would all research in the Gulf of Mexico be considered a conflict? We did not know. To us, this was the most disturbing clause in the contract. It was a potential worm hole into our science labs.

So, responding to faculty concerns, our university organized a face-to-face meeting with the two law firms representing BP. We took a very strong position: our faculty members would sign no contracts that limited the transparency, publication, or public distribution of their research. We told BP that we would be willing to conduct research projects directed by BP but that our faculty members would have to be accorded full academic freedom to disseminate their results. The firms requested that we provide a template of a contract stating the terms of our future research involvement. We sent it to them on June 11, 2010, the day after our original meeting. We never heard back from the firms.

On July 16, the Mobile Press-Register broke a story on BP’s effort to commit academic scientists all along the Gulf Coast to exclusive consulting and research contracts. The article, by environmental reporter Ben Raines, said that the faculty at the University of South Alabama had rejected such contractual agreements with law firms but that other faculty members and universities had accepted agreements limiting research freedoms. Not only was BP buying science, but any new scientific findings that could potentially help the Gulf would be “locked up.” A story about the sale of science is as distasteful to the academic community and the public as a story about scientific misconduct or a conflict of interest. Our university switchboard lit up with requests for interviews and television appearances.

When journalists finally released a copy of the restrictive BP contract, the backlash that BP and the signatories received was withering. Our university and its faculty instantly became the publicly anointed fulcrum to balance scientific objectivity against BP’s corporate interests and overweening need for secrecy. Reporters could not resist pointing out that our university upheld its academic integrity against the lure of a big corporate buyout. We tried over and again to make clear that we were not opposed to working collaboratively with BP. We just wanted our research results to be immediately available and fully transparent. Additionally, we tried to stress that BP had already committed substantial funding ($30 million) to Gulf Coast research consortia with no strings attached—so somehow there seemed to be a major disconnect between the research and development needs of corporate BP and that of its law firms tying up experts and research.

The following lessons emerge from our experience with BP:

  • Universities and their faculty members should be able to recognize burdensome contractual terms that go beyond individual consulting agreements.         
  • When terms and conditions appear outside of normal contractual terms by which faculty members conduct their scientific activities, then meetings with contracting parties are required.       
  • Working with industries, especially those facing litigation, should put both university administrators and legal counsel on full alert.  
  • A clear line of institutional communication from university administrators should be established to relieve researchers from having to sort out an endless barrage of questions from news media probing inconsistencies in institutional norms, policy interpretation, and academic freedom.

Standing on the tenets of academic freedom and transparency as a public university allowed us easily to justify why we rejected the conditions presented by BP’s legal teams. However, what if our faculty members signed research agreements, or somehow research agreements slipped through the university unchallenged? Would our administration have been as eager to point out that our faculty members were wrong for signing the contracts, and could we have handled the onslaught of criticism that would have likely ensued? All academics know we are losing the ivory-tower aura that once protected us. The ivory tower is made of glass, not bricks.

Receiving industry support in academic institutions is business as usual. And industry will always conduct business as usual by trying to control the research, manage the results, tie up intellectual property, and have the university hold the industry harmless for any side effects that might occur as a result of protocols or materials provided by the companies. We believe we have ways of managing those relationships so that the university, and the public, can still benefit.

BP, however, went beyond business as usual.

Russ Lea is vice president for research at the University of South Alabama. He previously served as chief research officer for the University of North Carolina’s Office of the President. His e-mail address is [email protected].



Kudo's to Dr. Russ Lea from Alabama.  So glad someone has the courage to call out BP for what it is. When universities sell out their public trust for a quick buck, we might as well close up shop and simply hang up our "for hire" shingle.

R. B.