Acting green while chasing gold: the corporate-college connection

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Thanks to medical research over the past 50 years, everybody knows that cigarette smoking is linked to cancer, emphysema, and a host of other life-threatening conditions. But imagine how things might have turned out if the research at leading medical schools had been controlled by Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and other big tobacco producers.

That will be exactly the scenario when it comes to developing alternative  energy sources and mitigating global warming if ExxonMobil, Chevron and British Petroleum have their way.

Cozy arrangements. Oil companies roundly denied global warming and its connection to fossil fuel combustion for years. From 1998 to 2005 Exxon gave over $19 million to groups that preached global warming was a hoax. Contributions to colleges and universities have long given oil giants a PR cover for their outrageous profits.

Now the petroleum multinationals claim they’ve seen the light and purport to be solving the problem by funding green research at top U.S. universities. These new corporate-university “partnerships” are much more insidious. They introduce direct control over academic research and can gag results that threaten profits.

In a report called “Big Oil U,” released in January, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) provides details of nine projects at major universities funded by the oil industry. As a whole, petroleum companies have sharply curtailed research and development for 25 years. Now, they want universities to do their work for them.

The most recent joint partnership, announced in February 2007, involves BP and the University of California Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The company will have the right to delay research publications and conceal information. BP will also have significant control over patents resulting from funded projects. Similar programs are in effect between ExxonMobil and Stanford, Chevron and UC Davis, and Chevron and Georgia Tech.

Academic freedom and science. Agreements like these are a chilling roadblock to academic freedom and to the scientific method. Because of their ability to discover and spread momentous information, academics can threaten the status quo and suffer repression. The Catholic Church denounced Galileo for proving the Earth revolved around the sun.

The scientific method provides an objective means to formulate, test, and revise theories to get the best understanding of the physical world. A principal tenet is full disclosure, sharing all data and methodology for the scrutiny and corroboration of other scientists.

Having lost their battle to invalidate evidence of climatic turmoil, oil giants found a new way to protect their obscene profits: Pretend they care about the environment. And pay their old university collaborators millions in grant money in order to control new research and discoveries.

By running university labs and labor, these oilmen in suits can obtain the rights to technologies aimed at producing new fuels for combustion, which still produce carbon dioxide. For example, growing corn to produce ethanol, a greenhouse gas-emitting fuel, deprives massive numbers of people and their livestock of food, but brings great profit to oil and agri-business. Non-fuel, renewable energy alternatives such as solar, wind and ocean wave power are downplayed. And through these multimillion dollar grants to universities, the oil monopolies can obtain the rights to alternative technologies and make sure nobody else develops them.

The way out. A full breadth of thinking, creativity and research is necessary to deal with the earth’s climate change. The CSPI report calls on universities to adopt policies that prohibit corporate donors from determining the direction of research and from owning the ideas that result. But further, that research must be publicly funded with no strings attached, and the resulting technologies publicly owned and developed for the common good.

Academic independence is just the latest practice under assault in the desperate quest for profit. Seen in the context of take-backs in civil liberties, media independence, environmental protection, workplace safety, education funding, and other hard fought rights, it’s more clear than ever that the only real solution is to unite to build a better, socialist world.  

Bob Price, a chemistry professor at City College of San Francisco, received a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and did research at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Exxon Research & Engineering. He can be reached via

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