Restrict Big Oil’s effort to green-wash image through UC

Published on

San Jose Mercury News (California)

The following Op-Ed commentary by John M. Simpson, Stem Cell Project Director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, was published in the San Jose Mercury News on Thursday, May 17th, 2007.

Recently, a Stanford University professor published a widely reported study that found converting automobiles to ethanol as a fuel would be more hazardous to human health than continuing to use gasoline.

The professor and his colleagues cried foul when our consumer group pointed out that he was paid for an earlier study by an institute at Stanford financed by Exxon Mobil. The offended professor pointed to his green credentials and his opposition to everything Exxon Mobil stands for, but his problem and that of other scientists working at Stanford is that the university accepted $100 million from Exxon Mobil and in return let that company develop and direct research at the university. That casts a shadow over all academic research results done under the branded umbrella.

When universities take money from Big Oil to fund research, it poisons the well. One has to question the purity of the water regardless of who is pumping it.

Big Oil companies are pumping their petrodollars into more and more university research programs across the country, adding campuses to a growing “Big Oil U” network. The companies set research agendas and potentially lock up rights to key discoveries in return for their cash.

In addition, the companies get to green-wash their corporate images by associating themselves with top-name universities.

At their meeting Wednesday and today, the University of California regents must act to maintain the academic integrity of one of the state’s premier public institutions, the University of California-Berkeley, and question a proposed $500 million deal with oil giant BP.

Exxon Mobil’s $100 million to Stanford University‘s Global Climate and Energy Program made the school one of the first Big Oil U campuses. Among other schools that have joined are UC-Davis’ Bioenergy Research Group with $25 million from Chevron; Princeton‘s Carbon Mitigation Initiative with $15 million from BP; and Iowa State University with $22.5 million from ConocoPhillips. Just last week, Duke University announced a $1 million pledge from ConocoPhillips.

These deals all pale in comparison to BP‘s half-billion-dollar plan at UC-Berkeley. It will probably influence all others because of its magnitude and the school’s prestige. And in a particularly troublesome aspect, the deal envisions placing 50 BP scientists on campus to do proprietary — that is, secret — research for the oil company. That means they can suck up everyone else’s ideas and need not share their own.

So what’s wrong with a university taking oil money? Aren’t these the companies responsible for so many of our environmental problems? Shouldn’t they finance the research to help right the situation?

Yes, but they cannot be allowed to buy a campus, set the research agenda, lock up rights to important discoveries and future technologies and green-wash their image in the process. Unfortunately, Stanford’s program is an example of exactly what shouldn’t happen.

Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Program is governed by a management committee comprising the sponsors. The university doesn’t even have a vote. The committee can decide which discoveries merit seeking a patent. Exxon and fellow corporate sponsors get exclusive rights for five years to patented discoveries made by the project’s researchers.

Exxon Mobil is known for actively undermining scientists who linked greenhouse gas emissions to global warming, yet it has attempted to green-wash its image with a high-profile public relations campaign touting its association with Stanford, a major research university.

Professors at universities have academic freedom to pursue their research wherever it may lead them, even if it offends the community. But such freedom rests on the premise that it is unbiased and not tainted by a vested interest of a funder.

If BP and the University of California system decide upon a partnership, some minimum standards must be met: The University of California should control the direction and the results of the research. Any patented discoveries should be licensed to all comers on a non-exclusive basis. Secret proprietary research should not be allowed on campus. Any BP marketing efforts using the UC name should be approved on a case-by-case basis by the regents themselves.

The regents need to recognize, as noted in the Statement on Academic Freedom from the First Global Colloquium of University Presidents, that “the pressures and lures of commercial initiatives and alliances can seriously threaten the autonomy of universities and the academic freedom of faculty and students.”

The Regents must make it clear they won’t let Berkeley become UC-BP.

Consumer Watchdog
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