By Tyler Brown
Corporate sponsors have too much control over privately funded research, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). The report, titled “Big Oil Goes to College,” named the relationship between Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) and its funders as one such offender.
The report evaluated multi-million-dollar, long-term funding agreements between universities and industry sponsors using questions report author Jennifer Washburn developed based on Cornell University’s criteria for a “strategic corporate alliance” and attempted to illustrate the extent to which the corporate funding contracts placed control of research agreements in the hands of university faculty.
The report criticizes GCEP’s sponsor-directed Management Committee for allegedly “violating longstanding university traditions of self-governance and academic autonomy from outside funders” because it controls the annual budget and ultimately approves funding for research projects, leaving it the theoretical power to veto a proposal.
“Traditionally, universities have fought very valiantly to establish what we think of as ‘academic independence,’” Washburn said. “So they’re not supposed to do mere corporate research for hire.”
GCEP director Sally Benson, however, said the Management Committee has never rejected a proposal approved by GCEP’s earlier-stage peer review committees, leaving no precedent for that behavior in the future.
The private sector’s support, Benson said, was a critical catalyst to GCEP’s founding.
“If you look at Stanford, industry support got this all going before there was government funding for this kind of research,” she said. “My basic view is that this has been a good thing for the University and will continue to be a good thing.”
GCEP is backed by $225 million given over 10 years by energy giants ExxonMobil, General Electric and Schlumberger as well as Toyota Motor Co. and parcels out up to 22.5 million in green energy research grants each year.
Report: Sponsors ‘Unduly Influence’
The CAP report also took issue with GCEP’s first contract, an agreement that allowed industry partners five years’ exclusive use of patents that emerged from GCEP research. The stipulation was removed from the contract when it was revised in 2008.
“What we were finding was…other universities wouldn’t submit proposals to us because they didn’t like those [intellectual property] terms, so we went back to the sponsors and said, ‘You’re missing a chance to support research,’” Benson said.
The report isn’t all negative: it gives GCEP’s research contract good marks for being “well drafted” and applauds the program for funding “an array of diverse energy research areas” and reviewing “all the faculty research proposals that it receives in each grant cycle.”
However, the report also goes on to claim “the research selection process is very poorly delineated” as the “GCEP agreements provide little exposition of how GCEP will evaluate and select which faculty research proposals are most meritorious and deserving of GCEP funding.”
“The industry sponsors are in a position to unduly influence the type of research that is being funded and what research questions are being asked,” Washburn said.
Sponsors, Researchers Explain Funding Process
Benson and several sponsors presented a different view.
“The sciences by nature…build upon what somebody else does,” Benson said.
For Schlumberger, funding research doesn’t necessarily mean dictating its direction or outcome.
“From the company’s point of view, research has to be bounded enough that it’s of interest to us,” said Schlumberger Vice President for Communication Rod Nelson. “If it isn’t, that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop it. We just might not fund it again.”’
Nelson added that GCEP hosts an annual research symposium to present and spread insights gleaned from its work. Researchers are required to produce annual technical reports on their projects, which are then made public.
“Clearly researchers need to have the ability to publish their work without coming back to the [management committee] board all the time,” Nelson said.
ExxonMobil echoed those sentiments.
“We hope scientists and companies will use GCEP’s findings to develop broad-based, commercial energy systems with significantly lower [green house gas] emissions,” wrote Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, in an e-mail to The Daily.
Spokespeople for Toyota and General Electric could not be reached by press time.
An ‘Unusual Relationship’?
According to Washburn, the different natures of academia and industry make any relationship between the two somewhat suspect.
“What’s unusual about these academic-industry relationships is that you’ve got an explicitly for-profit entity, then you’ve got an entity that is not driven by profit,” Washburn said. “Universities have other academic and research and public-interest obligations to protect.”
For Benson, that’s not unusual at all.
“To me, if I just do my work and it ends up on a shelf, I’ve failed,” Benson said. “An ideal relationship [with industry] would involve people who have the capacity to take information technology and scale it on a way that it can make a meaningful impact on greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”
“I think it’s always understood that the endgame is getting something to market that can provide better services to lower environmental impact and lower costs,” Benson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story was titled, “Oil companies influence campus research.” The title has now been changed to reflect the fact that the report made a claim that oil companies may influence campus research.