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Group challenges independence of research contracts

The Center for American Progress' report examines 10 contracts between universities and major oil companies. It says that in nine, the university ceded majority control in oversight of such alliances.

October 14, 2010|By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Contracts awarded to several universities by major oil companies to study alternative energy lack safeguards for academic independence and scientific objectivity, according to a report to be published Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington research and advocacy group.

The report examines 10 contracts, ranging from $2.5 million to more than $300 million, that govern the corporate-backed energy research at several major universities, including UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Stanford University and UC Davis.

University representatives immediately took issue with the report.

The report asserts that practices universities normally rely on to ensure academic independence and impartiality have been largely set aside with these agreements. For example, the report says that in nine of the 10 contracts, the university gave up majority control of the governing body overseeing the school's research alliance with the oil company and, in four instances, ceded control entirely to its corporate backer.

"This presents a real threat to the university's longstanding tradition of academic self-governance," said Jennifer Washburn, the report's author.

Graham Fleming, vice chancellor for research at Berkeley, questioned the report's fundamental premise that the reality of the research and the university's relationship with a corporate funder could be gleaned from a contract alone.

"Research contracts … do not specify every aspect of a research project's operations and activities," he said. "There are a host of overarching regulations, policies, guidelines, practices and cultural norms that have as much, if not more, influence on how sponsored research projects at Berkeley are actually conducted."

But the report contends that the only legally binding document in the relationship is the contract, and the center "analyzed what would be possible under the legal agreement as written."

Since 2002, Stanford has received $225 million from a consortium of companies led by ExxonMobil to look into "fundamental" technology to curb greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the Stanford contract, 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.

Stanford strongly disputed the characterization of the research at its Global Climate and Energy Project as compromised or controlled by corporate interests. The project "diligently follows the University's strict guidelines to ensure that our research is open and that our process is thorough, honest, and transparent at every level," its director, Sally M. Benson, said in a written statement.

Charles Hess, the interim vice chancellor for research at UC Davis, said the university disagreed with the report's characterization of the agreement with Chevron, adding that it "has allowed our faculty to pursue research in biofuels that would not otherwise have been funded."

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