The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

CAP Study Raises Questions About Industry-University Energy Research

October 14, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

A new report commissioned by the Center for American Progress finds that oil industry contracts with universities to conduct energy research may not adequately protect the universities’ academic independence.

The report, written by independent researcher Jennifer Washburn, looked at 10 industry-university research contracts. Washburn found that the contracts “raise troubling questions about the ability of U.S. universities to adequately safeguard their core academic and public-interest functions when negotiating research contracts with large corporate funders.”

As public funding for research dwindles, more and more research is being funded by industry. While Washburn, on a call with reporters today, said industry research is important, she warned that it’s important that there be some oversight of these agreements.

Some specific findings from the report:

  • In nine of the 10 energy-research agreements we analyzed, the university partners failed to retain majority academic control over the central governing body charged with directing the university-industry alliance. Four of the 10 alliances actually gave the industry sponsors full governance control.
  • Eight of the 10 agreements permit the corporate sponsor or sponsors to fully control both the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each new grant cycle.
  • None of the 10 agreements requires faculty research proposals to be evaluated and awarded funding based on independent expert peer review, the traditional method for awarding academic and scientific research grants fairly and impartially based on scientific merit.

But on the conference call today, Washburn laid out a number of the study’s limitations. “We really don’t know where industry had an influence,” she said, adding later, “We don’t know whether any research has been suppressed,” Washburn explained that it is nearly impossible to determine such a thing.

She also said many of the universities discussed in the study pushed back against the report’s findings, arguing that Washburn should have examined the university practices, not just university-industry contracts.

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