The Coast News Group
Not That You Asked

Fueling research at great universities

The rain had scrubbed the skies the other day and I was taking another good gulp of fresh air, looking forward to continuing this practice well into 2012 when a state law takes effect aimed at curbing greenhouse gases, slowing global warming and, presumably, enabling for eminently breathable air.
Were it not for the defeat of Proposition 23 on Nov. 2, that law would have been suspended until our admittedly unconscionable unemployment rate of more than 12 percent sunk by better than half. How bracing to have so soundly rejected a measure so ardently backed by the oil industry … and to note that voters were more clear about Prop. 23 — more than 4.4 million of them, or 61 percent, said no — than in any position on any other question on the ballot.
The opponents collected three times as much money as the oil interests. You wonder if anything would be left in the well if the Texans decide to try it again. How many times can you count on a $5.1 million contribution, like the one  philanthropists Thomas Steyer and Kathryn Taylor chipped in to topple Prop. 23?
In the meantime, we could relax for a while and appreciate how fortunate we are that our state is blessed with folks with both money and enlightenment to beat back the petrol-industrial complex.
The semblance of a self-satisfied smile on my face, though, did not last all that long once I got tipped to a study out of Washington, D.C., from the Center for American Progress that aimed to show anew how the sinews of big oil are rooted strong and deep.
To read between that study’s lines, it looks as if the oil industry stacks the deck when it directs dollars to great universities, including Stanford and the University of California, for what we would like to hope is “pure” scientific research. No, it seems that academia becomes a mere sub-contractor in the face of Big Oil money, with all sorts of strings attached to what to be looking for.
You want to buy the universities’ side of the story that outside pressures do not compromise the over-arching principles involved in the hallowed search for knowledge and truth. But what about how Big Pharma paid medical school professors to promote certain brands in the guise of science and healing? And how to dismiss the center’s acute examination of the specific contracts that govern projects at the academy?
Looking at major contracts at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and Stanford University, the center said the universities had ceded their independence and objectivity by failing to require impartial scientific peer review of research proposals; by giving up majority control on the panels that direct the research (at Berkeley, BP has veto power over the major governance and research decisions); by failing to root out conflicts of interest wherein companies in which academic scientists hold big financial stakes would profit from the research); and by allowing the oil companies to corner the market on products that emerge from university research.
Note that Steven Chu secured $500 million from BP for biofuels research at Berkeley and went on to become U.S. Secretary of Energy. Ask if the focus at Berkeley then results from a bias on the part of BP, which has invested so much in liquid fuels.
To the Center for American Progress, Big Oil “bankrolls research bias” at our major universities. To Big Oil, I suppose, all this is just another gnat’s endeavor to penetrate a hide grown thick on power and wealth. Argue all you want about the need to develop power using the wind, sun and the waves, what have you, and cry shame at the hint of corruption in academia by the big money of Big Oil, but right now our country can’t possibly run without the fuel.