Big Oil goes to college: a conflict of interest?


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Have hundreds of millions of dollars in grants from major oil companies compromised the ethics of energy research at such institutions as UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Stanford?

That’s what Jennifer Washburn, a longtime critic of academic conflicts of interest, contends in ‘Big Oil Goes to College,’ a new report that delves into the details of contracts signed between 10 major U.S. universities and global oil companies.


According to the 212-page study, released by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, such companies as BP, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips have funded more than $800 million in potentially compromised research with few protections for academic independence.

For example, since 2002, Stanford has received $225 million from a consortium led by ExxonMobil to study technology to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The company operates refineries, oil drilling facilities, tankers and gas stations, making it a major emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases globally.

As part of the Stanford contract, the industry controls all four voting seats on the research alliance’s governing body, and peer review of faculty research proposals is done ‘at the discretion of industry sponsors,’ the report says.

However, the report notes, ExxonMobil and other major oil companies are currently investing little of their considerable profits in clean-energy research and development within their companies, suggesting that grants to Stanford and and other prestigious universities may be largely a public relations effort designed to ‘green’ company images.

Stanford strongly disputed the characterization of the research at its Global Climate and Energy Project as compromised or controlled by corporate interests. Washburn is the author of the book ‘University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.’ In a 2007 op-ed piece for the The Times, ‘Big Oil Buys Berkeley,’ she examined BP’s $500-million deal with UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to fund the Energy Biosciences Institute, devoted to biofuels research. ‘For a mere $50 million a year, an oil company worth $250 billion would buy a chunk of America’s premier public research institutions, all but turning them into its own profit-making subsidiary,’ she wrote.

After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP has come under increasing public scrutiny for limiting the academic freedom of scientists it is funding to study the environmental consequences of the spill.


Read Tribune Washington reporter Neela Banerjee’s account of the Center for American Progress report on oil company contracts with universities.

-- Margot Roosevelt


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