Report Hammers UC Davis’ Deal with Chevron

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In January of 2009, UC Davis announced that the Chevron Corporation had given UC Davis $2.5 million to create a permanent leadership position for the campus’s Energy Efficiency Center.

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.”

 

The Vanguard spoke with Ben Finkelor of the Energy Efficiency Center at the time. He strongly defended the contribution. First, he explained that Chevron has created a separate endowment specifically to support energy efficiency. He believes that Chevron and other large companies have as much to gain by energy efficiency as anyone else.

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Report Hammers UC Davis’ Deal with Chevron”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    It is not clear to me from this article exactly what the problem is, other than vague innuendos. First let me say right up front, I am very concerned about the privatization of our public universities – I’m against it. Having said that, Chevron donated money for alternative fuel research, right? Now there is a claim that Chevron is directing the research. How exactly, other than the money end of things (licensing agreements). In other words, what I want to know is if Chevron will actually effect the RESEARCH FINDINGS to somehow discourage the development of alternative fuels?

    Or to put it another way, why should we care if Chevron gives UCD money to discover alternative fuels? We should care if Chevron will discourage UCD from finding alternative fuels. It seems as if the only real issue here is who gets benefit of licensing agreements from the research, Chevron or UCD, and whether UCD is striking the best deal? Have I got that right, or am I missing something?

    To me, the greater threat is if corporate donations would cause a public university to taint its findings, or cause it to research in a very narrow one-dimensional direction not in the best interests of academic integrity.

  2. rusty49

    The source used for this report was the “Center for American Progress” which is a Soros funded left wing anti-capitalist organization so their so-called findings are predictable.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]The source used for this report was the “Center for American Progress” which is a Soros funded left wing anti-capitalist organization so their so-called findings are predictable. [/quote]

    That ought to make it easy for you to refute their claims – I look forward to your post, I’ll even post it on the front page.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]It is not clear to me from this article exactly what the problem is, other than vague innuendos.[/quote]

    The problem is twofold, lack of transparency and loss of academic control over research. In essence, the report claims that UC Davis has sold out academic independence and integrity in order to receive corporate backing. Does that present a problem for the reliability and trustworthiness of academic search to have corporate backing tainting it? I think so. Maybe you disagree however.

  5. rusty49

    Everything they “claimed” are just opinions and as Elaine put it “vague innuendos” with no proof. You sound like David Axelrod and his “claim” that The Chamber of Commerce was using foriegn funding and when confronted on Face the Nation his response was prove it’s not true.

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Then you should be able to refute them easily if their false, so far we only have your assertions that they are false, and now vague. The report itself is quite detailed, I only presented the summary findings for the sake of clarity and brevity.

  7. E Roberts Musser

    dgm: “The problem is twofold, lack of transparency and loss of academic control over research. In essence, the report claims that UC Davis has sold out academic independence and integrity in order to receive corporate backing. Does that present a problem for the reliability and trustworthiness of academic search to have corporate backing tainting it? I think so. Maybe you disagree however.”

    I would be absolutely concerned if where research money came from tainted research results. For instance, if Chevron were paying UCD to conduct a study into the damage done by the Gulf oil spill, I’d be very concerned. But here, we have Chevron funding research to develop altenative fuels. I’m not seeing the conflict of interest. I’m not saying there isn’t one, I’m just saying I’m not seeing it. Can you give me a possible scenario, bc I can’t think of one off the top of my head. My assumption, quite frankly, is that Chevron is paying UCD to do its own research into alternative fuels, in case using oil as a fuel becomes obsolute or at least decreases significantly. I assume Chevron is attempting to diversify.

    I think you have to separate out issues here. Are you upset that Chevron gave money to UCD bc you don’t like Chevron bc its an oil company and you don’t like oil companies? Are you upset that UCD accepts corporate donations at all? Are you upset that Chevron is donating money to UCD to somehow come out with something that will unfairly bolster Chevron’s image?

    My big concern is not Chevron specifically in this particular case. My big concern is that the UC system is going away from being publicly funded, and relying more and more on corporate donations, that will steer the university in where and how it does its research, and move the UC system away from its teaching mission. It will also “privatize” the university system, so there is less incentive to make sure all in-state students of middle or low income have a reasonable opportunity to go to a UC.

  8. AeroDeo

    I don’t comment here much though I read the stories regularly, and more importantly these conversations, in an attempt to remain involved in my community. More often than not I’m a casual observer that’s here to learn, but I have a decent amount of knowledge about what’s being reported here and I’m baffled by a laundry list of misinterpretations, not to mention the almost combative tone I’m sensing.

    “The Vanguard spoke with Ben Finkelor of the Energy Efficiency Center…
    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…
    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.”

    You spoke with someone directly involved in the issue at hand and, apparently, you don’t believe him… ok, fine. I’m all for being a skeptic, especially if you believe he’s defending impropriety, but your disapproval is based on flawed logic; what could possibly be MORE important to an “oil company” (I’d contend that they’re trying to be an /energy/ company) than finding alternative sources of fuel/energy?

    “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…”

    The implication being that not only is there a problem, but now UCD has recognized it and admitted they were wrong. You seem to already have your mind made up.

    Also, I sincerely doubt anyone within UCD or the EEC has felt any effect of being attacked by a self proclaimed left-leaning think tank that has an obvious anti-oil political agenda. I’m not implying that UCD is dismissing them because they’re left leaning, rather the fact that they’re ‘leaning’ at all. So, I think “hammered” is quite a stretch as they have little if any power to influence this relationship.

    “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…”

    Who gets to say what “their core academic and public-interest functions” are, and why does this group get to decide what is and is not “adequately safeguarded”, not to mention the inherent ambiguity of what may or may not be “adequate”. There’s very, very, little actual substance to here.

    “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.’ “

    So, let me get this straight: the university still has exclusive rights to all intellectual property they develop, however, any intellectual property that was created by a private company, through the use of its own funds, and given to the university in hopes cooperative collaboration will have the opportunity to be removed if deemed necessary by said private entity. I’d love to know if I missed something, but that sounds like a legitimately fair approach to me.

    In fact, it appears that Mr. Hess supported this conclusion, yet you glossed right over it:
    “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.”

    Further, one of your main points is that there is a lack of transparency… so how is it that you would have enough knowledge of the contract to call the relationship improper yet claim that there is a lack of transparency; you can’t have it both ways.

    “According to the report, this delay is not in accord with recommended federal limits.”

    What limits? This looks like an attempt to smear the legitimacy of these arrangements without providing any substance or, more importantly, context.

    I think this story is suffering from a heavy dose of preconceived notions and a severe lack of objectivity.

  9. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine:

    “I think you have to separate out issues here. Are you upset that Chevron gave money to UCD bc you don’t like Chevron bc its an oil company and you don’t like oil companies? Are you upset that UCD accepts corporate donations at all? Are you upset that Chevron is donating money to UCD to somehow come out with something that will unfairly bolster Chevron’s image?”

    I wouldn’t use the word upset at all. I am concerned about the findings that academic freedom may be infringed on, regardless of the source of that lack of independence.

    I also agree with you on the privatization issue, I think it disturbs the mission of the university anytime you lose any degree of control. Not one of the critics of the report have shown me evidence that the university has not ceded control over work product.

    AeroDeo:

    “I’m all for being a skeptic, especially if you believe he’s defending impropriety, but your disapproval is based on flawed logic; what could possibly be MORE important to an “oil company” (I’d contend that they’re trying to be an /energy/ company) than finding alternative sources of fuel/energy?”

    It seems to me that the fundamental disagreement between us is that you believe that oil companies are primarily energy companies and thus have an incentive to seek alternative sources for energy, but my reading of the history, particularly in light of Prop 23, is that is not the case. That first and foremost oil companies seek to maintain their profits in the existing industry.

    I will spend more time later today responding to the rest.

  10. AeroDeo

    “It seems to me that the fundamental disagreement between us is that you believe that oil companies are primarily energy companies and thus have an incentive to seek alternative sources for energy, but my reading of the history, particularly in light of Prop 23, is that is not the case. That first and foremost oil companies seek to maintain their profits in the existing industry.”

    You’re putting words in my mouth and broadening the scope far beyond my intention.

    First of all, I said nothing about “oil companies” in the general sense. I was, and am, being very specific about a particular company, i.e. Chevron. My comments are addressing their sponsorship of pioneering research in the fields of energy efficiency as it pertains to UCD.

    Chevron has shown time and time again that they are interested in being a pioneer in a multitude of industries in order to ensure that they are a significant player if and when the tides change, it is simply diversification. I am not supporting Chevron, neither am I willing to condemn their every action as nefarious simply because their primary source of revenue is in harvesting fossil fuels.

    I look forward to the remainder of your response.

  11. E Roberts Musser

    AeroDeo: “Chevron has shown time and time again that they are interested in being a pioneer in a multitude of industries in order to ensure that they are a significant player if and when the tides change, it is simply diversification. I am not supporting Chevron, neither am I willing to condemn their every action as nefarious simply because their primary source of revenue is in harvesting fossil fuels.”

    Excellent response!

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