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Should Big Oil Fund Energy Research at Universities?

Universities need money to perform research, and rich, peak oil-wary petroleum giants need researchers to find alternative sources of energy as well as more efficient ways to drill for oil. It seems like a reasonable match—but are oil company-sponsored research projects unduly influenced by their sponsors?

Corporate-sponsored university research projects are common. And as interest in biofuels and other sources of energy grows, oil company-sponsored projects are becoming increasingly common as well. This month, for example, MIT and Shell partnered on a $25 million research agreement that will focus on next-generation oil and gas technologies—and establish Shell as a Founding Member of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

That's not necessarily a good thing, according to a study (PDF) from the Center for American Progress. In an examination of 10 university-oil industry agreements totaling $833 million in corporate funding for on-campus energy research, CAP discovered some disturbing statistics: eight of the agreements allow corporate sponsors to fully control evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals, nine of the agreements fail to give universities majority acadmic control over the governing body in charge of the alliance, none of the agreements require faculty proposals to be awarded funding based on independent peer review, and eight of  agreements fail to specify how faculty can apply for alliance funding.

CAP explains:

Today the boundary between academic research and commercial research is far more blurry. So far, the long-term consequences of this subtle but important shift in the nation’s science-and-technology infrastructure have not been well explored. This shift is especially important to consider in the energy sector, where independent university scientists and experts are urgently needed to measure and interpret today’s complex global-warming problems, uncover path-breaking new technologies, and provide impartial advice and expertise to the public and government agencies regarding effective public policy.

There are steps universities can take without giving up oil company funding. They could, CAP suggests, increase faculty involvement in the creation of corporation-university alliances, keep academic control over research selection, use independent expert peer review for research, and police commercial conflicts of interest. But will oil companies still want to part with their money if universities ramp up their demands? That's hard to predict.