Oil and gas companies pour money into research universities

  • ExxonMobil's new field processing facility in the Piceance Basin in western Colorado.

    Courtesy ExxonMobil Business Wire
  • A deer collared as part of a Colorado State University study funded by the company to figure out how wildlife behaves amid the area's vast network of roads and well pads.

    George Wittemyer
  • Artist Chris Drury at work on Carbon Sink on the University of Wyoming campus. Within months of its completion, the university had removed it, reportedly due to industry complaints to the State Legislature.

    Courtesy University of Wyoming Art Museum

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"We need new funding models to provide an affordable education," says Hal Salwasser, former dean of Oregon State University's College of Forestry, another land-grant school. "It's going to be coming from more private sources. I don't know of a school in the West that is not on that trajectory."

State timber taxes funnel millions annually to Oregon State's forestry research, and some companies have endowed faculty chairs and made other private contributions. But that coziness can spark controversy. In 2006, an OSU graduate student coauthored a paper in Science refuting the idea that logging burned trees stimulates new forest growth. Timber officials and some professors unsuccessfully demanded that it be withdrawn, leading critics to decry the college's industry ties. The episode triggered discussions about research principles, but didn't lead to any formal changes -- or reduce timber industry support or collaboration. "They don't get to pick the professors or the students or the research design," Salwasser says.

In 2010, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, identified over 50 "partnerships" between universities and energy companies, with contributions ranging from $1 million to $500 million. Government investment in energy research and development is just a fraction of what it was in the 1970s, so such collaborations have helped foster "critical advancements" in technology. But, the report warned, "Industry funding can have a powerful distorting influence on the quality, topics, and credibility of academic research when it is not properly managed."

Recent controversies have underscored that point. The industry-supported Shale Resources and Society Institute at the State University of New York-Buffalo closed just a few months into its operation, after its first report concluded that Pennsylvania's fracking regulations effectively protected the environment and people -- meaning that New York's proposed rules were safe -- even though independent data showed accidents had increased under Pennsylvania's rules. Several report authors, including Timothy Considine, now of University of Wyoming, also failed to disclose that they had worked for the gas industry. Similar issues have muddied fracking studies at University of Texas-Austin and Penn State, intensifying scrutiny of industry-funded research and earning it the moniker "frackademia."

The pace and scope of industry-academy alliances -- which sometimes include delayed stock options for professors, or give corporate funders significant control over studies and results -- have outstripped many schools' policies on financial conflicts of interest, disclosure of past work and intellectual property, says Cary Nelson, past president of the American Association of University Professors and co-author of a recent report recommending guidelines for such relationships. Some schools and professors now simply refuse energy money. "The fracking industry has acquired some of the reputation of the tobacco industry," says Nelson, referring to cigarette companies that sponsored studies refuting the links between smoking and cancer.