Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

04 July 2008

Big Oil U

Merrill Goozner and Eryn Gable of the Center for Science in the Public Interest published a report entitled "Big Oil U" in January 2008. The June 2008 issue of Academic Sourcebook reproduced the executive summary, with the subtitle "Corporations large and small are attempting to influence academia. These attempts are not isolated, and they are increasing. This is a threat to academic freedom."

The summary claims that "As the scientific consensus surrounding climate change has solidified, the oil, gas, coal, and electricity industries have reluctantly recognized the inevitability of political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Most energy companies are distancing themselves from campaigns to discredit global warming science." The summary then bemoans the fact that some energy companies are funding research programs at universities and attaching conditions that have the potential to compromise the integrity of the research. Nowhere does this summary discuss the possibility that government funding ever does anything of a similar nature.

The study complains that nine such university-energy business programs have some of the major limitations on academic freedom due to:
  • Company representatives on governing boards
  • Industry sponsors have intellectual property first rights
  • Industry sponsors play a role in deciding which projects are funded
  • Industry review of research prior to publication
  • Industry may delay publication
There are almost always some industry executives on university governing boards. Universities want them there as potential donors, for their executive advice on running a large organization, and because they have some insight into what skills students need to prepare themselves for jobs in industry, which whether academics like it or not, is where most of the product of a university winds up. However, this article takes the consistent viewpoint that universities are to be run for the sake of the faculty and their research interests, not for the sake of providing an education to students. There is no mention in this summary of any aspect of concern for the university function of educating students. This is very consistent with the way universities are largely run, not to mention public schools. Universities have two concerns: one for the research and publications of the faculty and one for the indoctrination of students with socialist and radical environmentalist propaganda. Universities more and more are disinterested in providing students with skills and knowledge which will enable them to be productive in industry. They would much rather that students took government, non-profit, and academic jobs.

In most of the cases discussed in which industry played a role in deciding which projects were funded, the role was less than that usually played by a government agency. Only at Georgia Tech did the industry partners make the decision by themselves.

The industry review of the research may play a very good role, since the scientists and engineers of the major oil companies know a great deal about energy. If they abuse their role, then the university can simply turn to government to fund the programs instead. The complaint that publication may be delayed can be handled the same way. There are cases when government funded research is also reviewed before publication and when publication may be delayed as well.

Apparently, the fact that the university generally has intellectual property first rights is less of a threat to academic freedom than a company having such a right. This entire article assumes that universities and industry are and ought to be at loggerheads. It totally fails to recognize that our wealthy society can only afford to pour money into these universities in amounts that consistently grow at rates even higher than the economy as a whole because of the incredible productivity of industry. It states that with more industry involvement "there is less space to perform research that is critical of industry or that challenges the conventional wisdom." Wow! Industry research funding for universities is swamped by government research funding for universities. Does this uncritical susceptibility of university researchers mean that they are much discouraged from criticizing government because of that funding. If so, and many of us recognize that this is very much so, then universities have a far more serious conflict of interest on their hands than that of accepting money from industry. Surely it is also the function of university elites to warn the great masses of dumb Americans of government excesses, mistakes, failed policies, impossible goals, frauds, inefficiencies and other problems which we know them to systematically ignore. Is it not the case that much of this tendency to ignore the limitations of governments is due to university dependence upon government funding? Of course it is!

As for discouraging a university from challenging conventional wisdom, I thought that they were in the business of creating the conventional wisdom and implanting it in their students with religious zeal. Long ago, they gave up on the ideal of teaching students to think critically for themselves and to close observe reality. Now they teach the tenets of tired and false socialism and anthropogenic global warming. Socialism has had nothing but obvious collosal failures and global warming never lived up to its billing even when there was a bit of warming and now there has been none for 10 years! No, the universities are one of the primary sources of myths in America today.

There is further admission that the commitment to truth is weak among university faculty members in this summary. Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University observes that "It's when they ask, 'Can you write the research in a certain way?' that it takes away the autonomy of the researchers, and many researchers are perfectly willing to trade that away so that they can get funding." He is talking about the role of corporations in biomedical research, but if they are so susceptible to dishonesty in that mode of funding, surely they are equally or more dishonest when dealing with government agency funding sources.

The summary says there is an inherent conflict between the interests of universities and the interests of corporations. The summary states "University research is supposed to work toward the common good. Corporate research is primarily aimed at maximizing profits." Wow, what a self-serving assessment. If corporation research is aimed at maximizing profits it does so by producing better product, or cheaper product, or whole new kinds of products that people buy freely in their pursuit of their own happiness. This we know in a capitalist society with free markets to be phenomenally effective in serving the common good. Universities supposedly exist primarily to educate students, which, if it is done well, serves each student well and then has great benefit for the common good. More and more, in order to have good faculty who will put up with educating students, many of whom are not so interested in being educated as in partying, universities hold them by making research a priority, which also has been contrived to give the university itself great prestige, even if the students are poorly educated. So, if we are to put the role of universities in a pejorative way, we can summarize their purpose as get government funding, publish or perish, never offend the government, and always ally oneself with government to expand its role and power. This comes much closer to a truthful assessment of their purpose than it should.

Now there is a very funny twist in this summary. It proceeds to note that carbon-dependent industries have only funded modest programs with modest goals in universities. One is tempted to ask how such modest funding is supposed to pose such a great threat to the universities. Indeed, university research in total dwarfs the entire R&D budget of the oil and gas industries. Given the widespread animosity of the universities to industry in general and to the oil industry in particular, it is clear that it is the oil industry that is most in danger, not the universities. Indeed, it is precisely because government funding of so many university researchers has bribed most of them into participating in the global warming alarmist scandal that the oil companies have been trying to fight their image as evil-doers by funding these university energy programs, which the summary notes is done to protect themselves.

The summary also bemoans how little the oil companies are investing into research of alternative energy compared to what they spend on exploration and the exploitation of new oil reserves. There is a reason for this. The alternative fuels do not offer sufficient return for these large companies to make a profit and to continue in business. Furthermore, finding new oil and developing it is becoming rapidly more expensive, even as the non-national oil companies, such as those funding the university programs complained about, are at or almost at their peak in production. They are almost certainly all on a downward production path. Alternative energy cannot solve the problem. Spending too much R&D on alternative energy will only make matters worse for the oil companies, since any possible return on investment is much too far into the future.

The universities want to take the toy from the little boy next door and then refuse to share it. This makes them look rather childish. Meanwhile, these university purists claim the oil companies are the wolf to their Little Red Riding Hood's grandma, even as the naked grandma climbs merrily into bed with the government wolf.

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