New report shows strong corporate influence on U of C research

By Chris Adams

The University of Calgary signed two research deals, with the last finalized in 2007, that jeopardize the academic integrity of the school, a report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers says.

The report claims control of U of C budgets and research is ceded to corporations under two agreements called the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In Situ Energy and the Consortium for Heavy Oil Research by University Scientists. Before the report was filed, the deals were unknown to the public.

AICISE partners the U of C with Nexen, Shell, Repsol, ConacoPhillips, Total E&P, the provincial government and Alberta Energy Research. Donors collectively give $10.2 million every year to the U of C for research in technology to reduce the environmental footprint from recovering oil from oilsands.

A “Management Advisory Board” was set up to govern the AICISE. According to the report, this board has the power to approve or disapprove plans and budgets proposed under these agreements.

The deal stipulates that the majority of the board are from outside the university. At any time, the board has 10 or 11 members, with six to seven of them from private industry. A majority vote is required for propositions to pass.

Students’ Union vice-president academic Emily Macphail said that corporate donations are not intrinsically wrong, but thinks the university should be careful with such deals.

“I don’t think, fundamentally, that industry providing funds for research and having partnerships with the university for research is a negative thing,” Macphail said. “The concern is less around industry applying funding and more around any potential for industry and funders to dictate what research is being done, how research is being done and how the results of that research can be disseminated.”

According to the report, under the Consortium for Heavy Oil Research — which was signed in 2004 between the U of C and corporations including Husky and Nexen — donors are allowed to withdraw from a deal if they don’t approve of the research being conducted.

CAUT received information on the consortium as a result of a freedom of information request. In the document they received, the total amounts donated were not included.

Ten other deals from universities around Canada were included in the report. Only two of the deals covered were in the public domain. The rest were obtained from information requests.

“These were agreements that affect students, staff and faculty members that were signed without the ability of people affected to be able to understand the nature of the agreements,” Council of Alberta Faculty Associations president Robert Sutherland said. “The secrecy and lack of transparency of these agreements is extremely important. We’re talking about public institutions that have public boards of directors that are supposed to be looking after our interests and they entered into secret agreements.”

The U of C issued a statement in defence of the deals.

“The authors of this report assume that, unless the funding agreement for sponsored research contains specific protections for academic freedom and other important principles, then the scholar is exposed to pressure to sacrifice his or her academic integrity. This is an incorrect assumption,” the statement said. “There are many other protections for faculty and students such as peer-review of their research in academic publications, as well as applicable university policies and procedures.”

Others in the academic community are not as convinced.

Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon said similar deals will be struck if stable funding from the government is not guaranteed.

“It’s clear that government funding cuts are driving the fact that corporations seem to be the only other alternative. Yet as we’ve seen in the CAUT report, there’s a lot of serious implications for the independence of academic institutions and research that’s going to be compromised,” Moore-Kilgannon said. “We’ve seen time and time again how money that is given by these corporations is really shaping what is research and what is not.”

Macphail echoed Moore-Kilgannon’s statements, saying that transparency is important in times of financial uncertainty.

“In some ways it’s good that this is being brought up. With the budget situation, it almost makes sense that we’re going to see more of these funding arrangements,” Macphail said. “So it’s good that we’re actually having this discussion now and trying to be more clear on where the university stands on [these arrangements] and to make sure that everyone has the protections they need going forward.”

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