NORTHERN CALIFORNIA – Big Oil’s impact on research is debated

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The San Francisco Chronicle

The oil industry has committed more than $700 million to alternative energy research at three Northern California universities, prompting debate over how commercial interests might shape the direction and results of scientific advances.

On one side, John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, based in Santa Monica, sees university affiliations as attractive to an industry trying to change its image but perilous to universities if safeguards are not put in place to protect their independence and reputation.

“When you have that amount of money coming in to a place, the mere presence of the money can have a substantial impact on the behavior of the university, and that means that it’s all the more necessary that specific safeguards go into place that prevent the university’s good name from being taken advantage of,” he said.

On the other side, alliance advocates say pooling federal, academic and private resources is necessary to solve technical problems with a level of complexity and financial risk that would undermine speedy, independent efforts by any one of the three.

They also argue that there’s nothing particularly nefarious about research sponsored privately as opposed to that supported by the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation — by far the biggest benefactors of university science and its largest financial investors, dwarfing all sources of corporate funding combined.

“All sources of research funding have implications for the academic institutions,” said Stanford plant biologist Chris Somerville, who will lead UC Berkeley‘s new Energy Biosciences Institute. “The large increase in funding from NIH during the past 15 years led to a huge expansion of biomedical sciences and, in my opinion, a lot of distortion of biological research priorities.”

Industry funding of energy research is a comparative dribble and would have to grow far bigger to cause distortions comparable with federal initiatives, Somerville said. “If anything, industry funding represents a healthy diversification away from almost total reliance on the whims of government,” he said.

Somerville’s Energy Biosciences Institute is part of a $500 million deal that UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois reached with British petroleum giant BP. It is one of the three-largest industry-academic alliances in the country and all three are in or near the Bay Area. The other two are Stanford’s $225 million Global Climate and Energy Project, which began in 2002, and a $25 million, five-year biofuels project formed at UC Davis in 2006.

While BP is funding the Berkeley institute, ExxonMobil is contributing $100 million toward the Stanford project and is one of four corporate sponsors. Chevron is paying for the UC Davis project.

BP also is funding separate energy projects at UC Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton and the California Institute of Technology. Chevron, in addition to its project at UC Davis, is sponsoring biofuels research at Georgia Tech and Texas A&M and just announced a $5 million research alliance with the University of Texas to develop new means to recover oil from old reservoirs.

Conoco Phillips, the No. 3 U.S. oil and natural gas producer, is funding the fourth-largest academic partnership in renewable fuels, with $22.5 million committed to Iowa State. That company, along with Chevron, Shell, Dow Chemical and a host of smaller firms, also is a participant in the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, a partnership of private companies, the U.S. Department of Energy and three universities.

For critic Brian Tokar, the concern is that industry sponsorships focus on developing renewable liquid fuels because that is the one area of energy research most easily commercialized.

“I’m generally very skeptical about the potential for biofuels,” said Tokar, a Harvard-trained biologist who heads the biotechnology project at Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology. “I think a lot of resources are being focused in that direction because it’s perceived that of all the various alternatives to address the problem of global warming, it (renewable liquid fuels) could be one of the ones that requires the least drastic change in infrastructure and the way our society is organized. The problem is, in order to make that case the benefits are grotesquely exaggerated.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented alliance between big oil and corporate agribusiness in order to promote this idea,” he said.

Oil companies aren’t alone in turning to universities for help in solving the many technological problems that stand in the way of an economically viable biofuels industry. They’re joined on a lesser scale by the chemical and agricultural industries, utilities, paper products and brewing.

It’s clear that more such alliances will be struck as oil and chemical companies try to develop renewable carbon sources to supplement fossil fuels and as the agriculture and forest products industries look to supply what is predicted to be a fast-growing demand for plant materials that can be economically converted into such fuels as ethanol and biobutanol.

“From what I hear there’s more money percolating,” said UC Berkeley law student Henry Stern, who has been in discussions with UC Berkeley administrators to ensure that grad students’ academic freedom will be secure in research sponsored by BP.

The BP deal will distribute $50 million annually among three institutions — UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This, Somerville said, is not enough money to cause any “significant distortions.”

Stanford’s industry-funded energy project has been benign, he said. “I have never heard anyone at Stanford suggest that it had any negative effect,” he said.

Molly Jahn, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, said the key factor in the push for alternative research sponsors has been the drop in state funding for the university over the last 20 years.

“Clearly with the rejection of state support for higher education, we have two choices: Either we become a smaller institution and do more with less, or we have alternatives,” she said.

Industry sponsorship can be consistent with the university’s public mission and can advance that mission by using commercial outlets to give public research a greater impact, she said.

“There’s a correlation between more private money and more excludable research,” she said. “That doesn’t’ mean it’s not delivered as benefits to the public, but it just means it’s being delivered as a commercialized product.”

One consideration is to choose partners who won’t interfere with the research or ask the university to endorse its products.

“The best funders are funding you not to get the answer they want but to get the right answer, and they hope the answer you get is the answer they want,” Jahn said. “Reputable sponsors understand that compromising the quality of the information is not in their best interests.”

The difference between a good and bad deal is not only in the choice of sponsors but in the quality of the written agreement. For academic negotiators, the key values to protect are noninterference with teaching and publishing, managing faculty conflicts of interest, protecting the integrity of the science from being impaired by overt commercial associations with the sponsor, and ensuring that research results are used by the sponsor rather than shelved for commercial gain.

One sensitive consideration is how long a sponsor may delay publication of research to protect commercial secrets. Jahn said such holds are rare at her institution and require approval from higher-ups when permitted. In UC Davis‘ agreement with Chevron, the company has up to 180 days to review a publication for patentable subject matter and confidential information.

Bryan Jenkins, a UC Davis professor of biological and agricultural engineering, said the terms are acceptable to faculty and grad students and similar to those in other research partnerships at the university.

“The important thing from our perspective was that process be open and transparent,” he said. “(Chevron) could review but they could not restrict. They can send comments back, but they’re not in a position to change the conclusions.”
E-mail Rick DelVecchio at [email protected].

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