UC Davis’ then-Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, speaking at the event, announced, “Chevron’s endowment will ensure long-term strategic leadership for the Energy Efficiency Center. By bridging long-term research with real-world applications, the director will guide the center in its goal of commercializing groundbreaking technologies, powering economic progress and helping to conserve resources.”
He also suggested that such donations have never come with any strings attached. They have never been told what to do by Chevron or any other company. This is simply a new market for the future.
However, the Vanguard questioned such an arrangement, arguing that there was an inherent contradiction between the interests of an oil company and the research that would be looking into alternative energies and fuel efficiency.
UC Davis did not see the problem back then, but now they have been hammered this week by a report from the Center for American Progress, as one of ten campuses nationwide that have questionable relationships with oil companies.
According to the report, oil companies have donated or otherwise given universities millions to conduct research on the development of alternative fuels.
“The results of this report’s analysis of these 10 large-scale university-industry 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,” wrote Jennifer Washburn, an investigative reporter for the Center for American Progress.
One of the biggest findings is that the University has failed to retain majority academic control, which has compromised academic freedom for the universities at the same time that it has granted huge commercial benefit to the oil companies.
“Many of these agreements fail to make any clear distinctions between independent, academic research and commercial research-for-hire,” Ms. Washburn wrote. “If more U.S. universities begin to work with the energy industry through these types of contract-research arrangements, then it will be far more difficult for them to continue producing credible, independent energy research in these critical academic fields.”
The report specifically sites this $25 million partnership, signed in 2006 for five years, which has since been extended to 2013. “On August 25, 2006, Chevron signed a major research partnership with U.C. Davis to study and develop affordable, renewable transportation fuels from farm and forest residues, urban wastes, and crops grown specifically to make biofuels.”
The report argues that the partnership with UC Davis is one of four agreements that “explicitly permit the industry sponsors to extend the commercial rights to “background” academic research, which by definition was not funded by the industry sponsors but by public and other sources not party to the alliance agreement.”
The report goes on ask whether “the university side retains majority control of the alliance’s central governing body?” The answer for UC Davis was, “no,” the “governing structure [is] very poorly-defined.”
The report also faults UC Davis for lacking a required impartial peer review and lacking transparency in the process for submitting faculty research grants.
While the University’s core right to publish is protected, there is a 150-day delay “permitted to allow the industry sponsor to remove proprietary information and/or file for patent protection.” According to the report, this delay is not in accord with recommended federal limits.
UC Davis was also hit for allowing the industry sponsor to substantially define the alliance’s overarching research agenda.
The report argues, “this agreement lacks basic governance details, leaving Chevron largely in charge.”
Under the agreement the University does not retain control over the selection of academic research projects, as the industry sponsor, in this case Chevron, gets to approve all final research awards.
The report asks, “On a scale of 1 to 10, does the industry sponsor enjoy strong exclusive commercial rights to project results?”
The report ranks UC Davis an 8, saying “Sponsor has automatic option to license exclusively, with favorable royalty rates, and rights to background research not funded by Chevron.”
On the other hand, the University has limited ability to license project research nonexclusively to other outside commercial entities.
For their part, UC Davis officials have denounced the report, arguing that it is both inaccurate and misguided in its approach.
Charles Hess, UC Davis’ interim Vice Chancellor for Research, told the Sacramento Bee in a statement, the deal with Chevron “is a standard, conventional academic contract.”
“UC Davis is not restricted in publishing its findings. Chevron has the exclusive first right to negotiate for a license on UC Davis discoveries made under the contract, but if Chevron does not wish to license a discovery, UC Davis may sell the license to any other party.”
As money becomes more scarce, there has been an increasing push to seek out grants, partnerships, public-private arrangements. A potential problem with these contracts is not inherent, so long as the University pushes hard to maintain academic independence. The problem is that the pressure is far greater on the corporate demand side, meaning that the corporations have all of the leverage in such arrangements.
If UC Davis does not agree to their terms, someone else will. If that is the case, then such partnerships are a threat, imperiling independent academic research. This is something we ought to bear strongly in mind as UC Davis continues to push for more research money during times of a flagging economy.
—David M. Greenwald reporting