The “Big Oil Goes to College” report, recently published by the Center for American Progress, criticizes 10 campuses nationwide for their research contracts with major oil companies – UC Davis included.
Under the agreement, Chevron pays UC Davis $25 million over the course of five years starting in 2006 to conduct biofuel research. Dr. David McGee, executive director of InnovationAccess, said he believes that this agreement is beneficial for UC Davis and for the public.
“UC Davis depends on industry to provide capital that is necessary to develop our discoveries,” McGee said. “We believe this is the type of collaboration that the public should want industry to do, and should want the university to do.”
The agreement provides for research funding that the university may not have otherwise, and Chevron provides the ability to complete research proposals for public benefit, McGee said.
The report claims that the UC Davis-Chevron agreement contains numerous provisions that solely benefit Chevron and that it is too vague, allowing for Chevron to exploit the alliance largely in its favor. Thus, it also states that the ethics and quality of academic research are weakened by industry influence.
“This vagueness and/or silence concerning the alliance’s academic management, oversight and research selection process leaves the balance of power (between UC Davis and Chevron) highly uncertain,” states the report. “The agreement also tends to give Chevron a strong de facto advantage in controlling the terms of the alliance.”
However, UC Davis staff members insist that the author of the report, Jennifer Washburn, has misinterpreted the agreement as well as failed to acknowledge the typical framework of a business contract between a public university and a corporation.
“Lots of the issues that [the authors] have concentrated on might make sense if you are talking about money from the federal government or the state government, which is basically tax payers’ money,” said Dr. Ahmad Hakim-Elahi, executive director of Sponsored Programs. “When we work with a private sector entity, what we basically do is put a proposal and budget together and it goes to the company, and the company decides if they want to fund us or not.”
More specifically, the report claims that, due to the vagueness of outlining the governing structure and decision-making process that determines the focus of research, Chevron has the upper hand in formulating the research projects.
In actuality, UC Davis professors have the major responsibility of creating research proposals, McGee said. The professors first write a research proposal, and then a review committee comprised of UC Davis and Chevron representatives review it. If the proposal meets their criteria, it’s sent to Chevron for final approval.
If anything, the governing structure consisting of a joint committee is favorable for UC Davis, Hakim-Elahi said.
“A university is not a part of that committee at all in a typical relationship with an industry,” Hakim-Elahi said. “In this relationship we have a say in the direction of even their decisions, we discuss things together.”
Additionally, the report criticizes the absence of an independent peer review system of research proposals.
While a peer review system could be implemented if the funding came from the federal government, it is not applicable in a relationship between a university and a company, Hakim-Elahi said. When working with a private sector, there is no peer review.
“They are the ones who decide how they want to spend their money,” Hakim-Elahi said. “They are not forcing us to take it, they are not forcing the direction of research. We come up with the research and ask them if they want to fund it or not.”
The report also incorrectly states that UC Davis cannot spend any of its earned royalties however it pleases, McGee said.
“The contract very clearly states the royalties the university receives is controlled by the university,” he said. “One-half of the royalties is designated in the agreement to be used for future energy-related research at the university, but the university has final authority for what that research would be. The other half is not encumbered in any way.”
Furthermore, the report claims that a 150-day publication delay and five year confidentiality restriction are unreasonably long and unfavorable towards UC Davis’ publication rights, but the explanations of these components are misleading, McGee and Hakim-Elah said.
“The university is not prohibited from publishing data,” McGee said.
He said that the publication delays are an appropriate amount of time needed to decide whether or not to file and prepare a patent application.
“The confidentiality component only applies to information that is confidential to the company (Chevron), the data that is generated out of the research is not part of that.”
Alexandra Krier, a sophomore animal science major, views the alliance positively.
“Research for alternative fuel methods is going to be beneficial,” Krier said. “So why does it matter if it’s the oil companies funding it?”
The full version of the report can be found at americanprogress.org/issues/2010/10/pdf/big_oil_lf.pdf, and the actual agreement at bioenergy.ucdavis.edu/chevron.php.
MARTHA GEORGIS can be reached at email@example.com.