13 Academics Who Are Shills for Corporate Giants
There's nothing new or unusual about corporate and academic collaboration. IBM, for instance, has partnered with universities around the country since the 1940s to support computer science education. This relationship is mutually beneficial both for the tech giant and the institutions sponsored. IBM's grant dollars provide welcome funding for research and equipment for students, all while fostering a new class of computer scientists and engineers.
Powerful industries from Big Oil to Big Food have been found funneling eye-popping sums of money to university professors in order to fund research and promote their commercial interests.iStock
University-business partnerships, however, require a careful balance. Take the tobacco industry. According to a 2012 study by Harvard professor Allan Brandt, cigarette makers all but invented the concept of industry-academic conflicts of interest.
Since the 1950s, cigarette companies have sought to influence the debate about the dangers of smoking to sell more of their products. One tactic used was aligning with university-based science and underwriting millions of dollars for favorable research.
A number of industries have evidently taken a page from the tobacco playbook. Powerful industries from Big Oil to Big Food have been found funneling eye-popping sums of money to university professors in order to fund research and promote their commercial interests.
The corporate hijacking of higher education is more complex than it looks. When state universities or land grant colleges see their budgets stretched thin, some faculty may feel pressured to seek or accept much-needed funding in ways that are not transparent to the public.
Nonetheless, academics are counted upon for the integrity of their assertions. Industry funding has been shown to undermine objectivity and professors violate their responsibilities as impartial experts as well as the public's trust when they associate with unscrupulous commercial interests.
Here are 13 prominent university professors who appear to have stepped over the line between big business and academia:
1 & 2. Carol O'Neil & Theresa Nicklas. Back in 2011, a number of media outlets breathlessly touted a surprising new study that found children who eat candy weigh less than children who do not. The study's authors included professors O'Neil of Louisiana State University and Nicklas of Baylor College of Medicine and Victor Fulgoni, a former Kellogg executive and consultant.
Unsurprisingly, an Associated Press investigation by Candice Choi revealed that paper was not only partially sponsored by the National Confectioners Association—which counts such candy giants as Hershey, Wrigley, Mars and Nestle as group members—but that the trade group also made a number of suggestions to the paper.
"You'll note I took most but not (all) their comments," Fulgoni wrote in an email to O'Neil in 2010.
A similar study on candy and adults also received comments from the candy group.
O'Neil told the AP she did not receive compensation for the work, but in 2011, Nicklas sent Nutrition Impact, Fulgoni's consulting business, an invoice for $11,500 for three manuscripts, including $2,500 for "candy." The professors also co-authored a paper about the health benefits of chickpeas and hummus funded by Sabra Dipping Co. Even though a disclosure said that Sabra did not provide input, the final paper did include the company's suggestions, the AP reported.
3. Wei-Hock Soon. The aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is a noted climate change skeptic, who asserts that global warming is caused by the sun, not human activity. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents obtained by Greenpeace showed that Soon accepted more than $1 million over the last decade from fossil fuel titans such as Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch brothers and more.
The New York Times reported that Soon failed to disclose that conflict of interest in his scientific papers at least 11 times. This is also telling: His work is often cited by prominent climate-denying politicians, including snowball-wielding Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works who considers Soon one of his personal heroes.
Soon still passionately defends his work and presented his research at a Paris climate conference "counter-conference" alongside Heartland Institute, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
4. William Happer. In December, a bombshell Greenpeace sting suggested that two academics from prominent universities could be bought by fossil fuel companies. The first was Happer, a Princeton University professor and prominent climate change skeptic. The physicist, who is not a climatologist, was approached by Greenpeace activists posing as consultants of a Beirut-based energy company to author a paper on "the benefits of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels."
Emails show that Happer wanted $250 an hour for his work and asked that his fee be paid to the climate-doubting group CO2 Coalition, where he's a board member. Happer also disclosed in the emails that Peabody Energy donated $8,000 to the CO2 Coalition for testimony in a Minnesota hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide.
The Greenpeace investigation was released hours before Happer testified at Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Tex.) bizarre Senate hearing disputing climate change. Right before his testimony, when a Greenpeace researcher confronted Happer about how much money he received from Peabody, Happer barked, "You son of a bitch, I haven't taken a dime!"
Happer has not disputed the veracity of the emails but refused to comment about the operation.
5. Frank Clemente. The professor emeritus of sociology at Penn State University was the second professor implicated by the Greenpeace operation. This time, Greenpeace activists posed as Indonesian coal mining representatives and approached Clemente to write a report before the Paris climate talks "to counter damaging research on linking coal to premature deaths," according to published emails.
Clemente, who has previously argued against coal divestment among educational institutions, agreed and requested $15,000 for an 8- to 10-page report and emphasized he would not have to disclose his sponsor.
"There is no requirement to declare source funding in the U.S.," Clemente wrote in an email. "My research and writing has been supported by government agencies, trade associations, the university and private companies and all has been published under the rubric of me as an independent scholar—which I am."
In response, Clemente told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he was an independent consultant and not on the Penn State payroll during the sting. "I fully stand behind every single statement I made," he said.
6. Bruce Chassy. Like Soon, the University of Illinois professor emeritus has similarly come under fire for his close ties to the controversial agrichemical industry. U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit watchdog group, obtained a jaw-dropping cache of emails through FOIA requests unveiling how Monsanto and its allies not only donated money to professors but also enlisted them to do PR, lobbying and regulatory work for the agrichemical industry.
On September 2015, a stunning exposé from The New York Times on the FOIA emails described how Chassy received money from Monsanto and collaborated with the agrichemical industry's lobbying of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject a proposal that would tighten the regulations on pesticide-resistant seeds.
Monsanto's Eric Sachs, who leads the company's scientific outreach, emailed Chassy to set up Academics Review, a nonprofit aimed at countering critics of GMOs. "The key" to Academics Review's success will be "keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information," Sachs wrote.
This past March, a WBEZ investigation by Monica Eng uncovered that Monsanto gave Chassy more than $57,000 in two years to help promote, defend and deregulate GMOs through the lobbying of federal officials. Monsanto also made $140,000 in "biotech research and outreach" payments through the University of Illinois Foundation between 2006 and June 2012.
Chassy has harshly criticized the U.S. Right to Know campaign.