Public Universities, Private Money: How Marcellus Research is Funded

Penn State has taken a leading role in researching the pros and cons of Marcellus Shale. Some of this research is paid for by companies extracting the gas. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier teamed up with Public Source and found that corporate funding can help researchers and grad students, but also raises ethical questions. Among them: Should public universities disclose corporate research funding?

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There's a gas rush going on in Pennsyvlania. There's also a rush to study the risks and rewards of the Marcellus shale. Some of that research is paid for by the very corporations extracting the gas. Should public universities do research that benefits corporations?
As the Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier found out, corporate cash can help researchers, but some wonder whether the public is really being served.

FRAZIER: $103 million dollars. That's how much Penn State gets from big corporations to fund research every year. Only Duke, Ohio State and MIT get more research dollars from industry. The money pays for work in everything from computer science to nanotechnology to Marcellus shale.

KOHL: So this is the core lab, we've got almost 6,000 feet of core over here I think, I'm not quite sure what the last number is.

FRAZIER: Dan Kohl is a graduate student in Penn State's Department of Geosciences. He's studying the geology of the Marcellus shale. At a lab on campus, Kohl stoops over a table. It's covered with trays full of rock cores. These are cylinders of rock cut from deep underground. He picks one up in his hand.

KOHL: This one is black, dark grey. This is the traditional Marcellus people think of when they think of the black Marcellus shale.

Frazier: Kohl's research is funded almost entirely by oil and gas industry money. A dozen companies have paid $40,000 each to support the lab he works in. The money pays for Kohl's grad student salary, and some of the equipment he and other students use to map out the gas-rich shale. The rocks on the table? They were dug up with corporate money.

KOHL: There's a ton of core here a ton of data, and it really benefits our research and enables us to answer that question--what's the subsurface geology?

FRAZIER: Kohl's adviser is Mike Arthur. He's a geologist and co-director of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research at Penn State. When Arthur came to the school 20 years ago, the big corporate sponsor was the coal industry. Now, it's natural gas.
He says industry support helps Penn State fulfill one of its main missionsóhelping students get jobs.

Part of that means that we have to work with industry. Go out and find out what they're interested in? What techniques are they using? How are those techniques evolving?

FRAZIER: That's the good side of industry funded research. But some argue there's a downside, that universities have gotten too cozy with their corporate sponsors.

WASHBURN: The concern is that you don't want that entire institution to just become a research arm of ExxonMobil.

Elizabeth Washburn is a journalist and author of the book, University, Inc. The book details the rise of corporate sponsorship for academic research. Decades ago, big corporations did much of their own R and D. And the governmentóespecially during the Cold War--funded armies of academic researchers. Both funding streams have shrunk. And the resulting marriage of convenience--joining academics and corporate benefactors--concerns Washburn.

WASHBURN: Increasingly, universities need the money and so they're willing to take more and more work that is not of high scientific value for society but is only largely going to benefit the one company sponsor.

FRAZIER: So, how much are oil and gas companies spending on research at Penn State? The Allegheny Front and our partners at Public Source tried to find out. We also asked the University of Pittsburgh. Both declined to list their sources of corporate-sponsored research or say what research that money paid for. They each said those contracts were private, and that disclosing them would hinder their ability to attract other corporate sponsorships.
As it turns out, neither school has to disclose these contracts. That's because they asked for and received an exemption from the state's 2008 Right-to-Know law. Barry Kauffman, of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan open government group, opposed that exemption. He says, when a school gets hundreds of millions of dollars from the state do every year--as both Pitt and Penn State do--its inner workings ought to be public.

KAUFFMAN: It is being supported by tax dollars and I think the public has a right to know, What are the influences and overall mission and operations of that institution?

FRAZIER: Both schools are quick to point out the majority of their research money comes from public sources. Corporate money amounts to about an eighth of Penn State's research budget--and just one percent of Pitt's. They also insist that any research they do for a company be submitted for publication. And funding sources are disclosed in academic journals.

As to the broader claim that corporate money is putting private interests ahead of the common good? Untrue, says Terry Engelder. He is a Penn State geologist. And he says his research on shale -- funded by industry-- helped launch a gas boom that is driving down energy costs and may yet get the US off of foreign oil. He says that amounts to a win-win for the public and the industry.

ENGELDER: The public benefits from the development of this domestic natural gas rather than foreign petroleum both in terms of security and cost.

But does all this corporate support buy something other than lab equipment? Does it produce a kind of pro-industry slant at a university, as some critics claim?

ARTHUR: The short answer is no.

FRAZIER: Again, Penn State geologist Mike Arthur. He says the school's administration lets faculty study what they want to.

ARTHUR: And none of them have ever said anything to any of us about what we could or could not publish.

FRAZIER: Arthur points out it's up to the professor to decide whehter to take corporate dollars. And some working in Marcellus shale issues decide not to. Tim Kelsey is one of them. He's an economist who studies the gas industry's impact on the local economy.

KELSEY: I'm afraid that if I did receive money from industry that would change peoples' perceptions of is what I'm doing is it biased? Is it objective?

FRAZIER: For grad students like Dan Kohl, who's studying rock cores, where his funding comes from won't sway what his research finds.

KOHL: My job with this project is to determine what the rock properties are and what the distributions of them are in the subsurface, and that's not something that really can be swayed one way or another.

FRAZIER: For Kohl, it looks like his work will pay off soon. When he gets his degree next year, he's moving to Pittsburgh. He's got a job lined up there with Chevron, where he'll be working on the Marcellus Shale.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Reid Frazier.