As development of the Marcellus Shale spreads across Pennsylvania, Penn State University has taken a central role in doing research about the industry, from its economic impact to its geological properties.
Some of the research is paid for by companies extracting the gas, according to petroleum geologists who do the work. But the state-related university, which took in $214 million in taxpayer funding last year, declined to say how much individual companies spend or what the money pays for.
Universities welcome the money and say there’s no impact on their research, but critics are concerned that the lack of transparency is dangerous to independence.
"The problem is that, increasingly, universities are very secretive about the terms under which they’re signing these research contracts," says Jennifer Washburn, a journalist and author of the book "University, Inc.", which details industry’s increasing ties to academia.
"I think there’s a real danger right now that universities are accepting too much work that is not scientifically interesting separate from what, let’s say, Exxon Mobil wants for its own commercial interests," Ms. Washburn said.
Universities counter that corporate-sponsored research is done under the same academic standards as any publicly funded study.
"Penn State would not jeopardize its vast research enterprise … by doing less-than-rigorous research that is sponsored by industry," Lisa Powers, a Penn State spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Corporations paid for 6 percent of all research, or $3.2 billion at U.S. universities in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, according to a National Science Foundation study.
At Penn State, the percentage is even higher. The school ranks fourth in the country in corporate research support, behind Duke University, Ohio State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For decades, it has maintained research relationships with companies such as Bayer, Dow and ConocoPhillips.
"Penn State maintains its distinction as one of the nation’s top universities in industry-sponsored research," said Henry C. Foley, Penn State’s vice president for research, in a year-end university report.
The university declined to give details when PublicSource and news partner The Allegheny Front asked which companies and industry sectors contributed to research at the school. Penn State, through a spokeswoman, said those records could not be disclosed because of agreements between the university and the corporations.
Paul Hallacher, Penn State’s director of research program development, said the school does not give out the information because companies do not want their competitors to know what research they’re doing — or that they’re sponsoring university research at all.
In 2007, Penn State President Graham Spanier lobbied the state legislature to not include the four state-related schools — University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple University and Lincoln University — under the state’s revamped "Right-to-Know" law.
That means that while the 14 schools in the State System of Higher Education are considered fully supported by the public and therefore would need to make those contracts available, the two largest public-research universities, Pitt and Penn State, would not.
In testimony before the state Senate in June 2007, Mr. Spanier said the schools should not have to disclose donor gifts, vendor contracts, intellectual property licensing agreements or the source of the university’s $100 million in corporate sponsored research.
"Making details of contracts publicly available will threaten our competitive position with universities outside of Pennsylvania, as well as with private universities within Pennsylvania," Mr. Spanier said.
Mr. Spanier’s efforts proved successful. Under the law, the four schools have to disclose only the salaries of their highest-paid employees and portions of their nonprofit tax form.
The exemption to the law angered Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan open-government group.
"When the institution expects major amounts of public funding … I think the public has a right to know what are the influences and overall mission and operations of that institution," Mr. Kauffman said.
For Pitt, industry support accounts for only a tiny percentage of its $654 million research budget. But the school keeps those industry-funded agreements private.
"We can’t give you that," said George Klinzing, Pitt’s vice provost for research. "We are in contractual agreements with these [firms] not to publish that information. It’s part of the negotiations, part of the agreements that we have with those firms."
Despite its insistence on privacy, the university is still "an open environment," Mr. Klinzing said. "We don’t do secret research at the University of Pittsburgh."
The university will not work with an industry funder if it isn’t allowed to publish the results of its research.
"We produce paper, and that’s what it’s all about," Mr. Klinzing said.
The funding corporation or industry group is eventually disclosed on any peer-reviewed papers that result.
Critics say that keeping their agreements with corporations private until the research is published betrays a fundamental concept of the "open" university.
"We want to make sure that when industry funds a study that it is all above board," Ms. Washburn said, "that we know that the scientists are working independently of the sponsor, that we know that the sponsor will not be able to review research before its published and make changes."
University officials say confidentiality makes universities more attractive partners to corporations and, furthermore, the agreements help to educate students.
"Who are our main customers? They’re the students," said Mike Arthur, a Penn State geologist and co-director of the school’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. "Students expect an education that will get them a job."
Mr. Arthur helps run a shale gas research group funded by a consortium of a dozen gas companies. The companies pay $40,000 each to fund graduate student projects regarding the geology of the hydrocarbon-rich Marcellus Shale. Funders include large shale gas players such as Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Statoil.
A spokesman for Statoil said in an email that the state-owned Norwegian oil company was "interested in collaborating with key North American research institutions" to better understand shale gas formations such as the Marcellus.
"Penn State is one of those leading institutions and has a great deal of experience in studying and interpreting the Marcellus Shale," he said.
Mr. Arthur says the consortium, the Appalachian Basin Black Shale Group, gives his students real-world experience, working with industry scientists to study problems the energy industry is interested in.
"Part of that means we have to work with industry. We have to know, ‘What techniques are they using? How are those techniques evolving? What are the possible hot topics in the future?’ " Mr. Arthur said. "We’re not going to learn this by sitting and reading books. We have to go to the field and go to their laboratories, their conferences."
In an email, a Shell spokeswoman said funding research at universities such as Penn State allowed students "to attain the opportunities and experience they need."
One of Mr. Arthur’s students, Dan Kohl, is a case in point. He’s mapping a section of the Marcellus Shale using cores from the shale drilled with help from industry sponsors.
"I understand this is a politically charged subject," said Mr. Kohl, 23, who is originally from Los Angeles. "Fortunately for me, my role here and my research goal is not involved in that. My job in this project is to determine what the rock properties are. … Fortunately, it’s apart from all the politics."
When he’s done with his master’s degree, Mr. Kohl will be heading to Pittsburgh, where he’s got a job lined up at Chevron, working on drilling projects in the Marcellus Shale. Salaries for master’s level geologists in the field start at $100,000.
Despite the obvious gains for students like Mr. Kohl, critics of corporate-funded research say universities should remain independent of corporate money.
"There are so few institutions we have left that can provide unbiased knowledge, universities are really ceding that territory," said Cat Warren, a North Carolina State University English professor who’s followed industry-funded research for the American Association of University Professors.
Ms. Warren wonders whether the weight of corporate money could promote a pro-industry outlook at universities.
"If you have a department that’s taking a lot of corporate dollars, a young assistant professor coming into that department … is going to be loath to come in with a critique of the dangers, for instance, of fracking," she said.
Mr. Arthur, the Penn State geologist, disputes that assumption.
"The university is not a monolith," he said. He says the university’s administration has never told him or any professor he knows to alter their research in any way to reflect any kind of viewpoint, either pro- or anti-drilling.
Some professors who work on Marcellus Shale issues don’t take corporate dollars. Faculty members study a range of topics, including the impact of drilling on groundwater, economics and migratory birds.
Tim Kelsey, a Penn State economist, has studied the gas industry’s impact on the Pennsylvania economy. He’s never taken industry money for this work, though he said if he did it wouldn’t alter his ability to study the issue objectively.
"I’m afraid if I did receive money from industry, that would change peoples’ perceptions of ‘Is what I’m doing biased? Is it objective?’ " Mr. Kelsey said. "Because perception matters."
*Reid R. Frazier has won a Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters' award for excellence for "Public colleges, private money." The story was done in collaboration with PublicSource and was broadcast on the Allegheny Front on Essential Public Radio.
University research funding reached $55 billion in fiscal year 2009 alone, according to the National Science Foundation’s latest survey. The report analyzed universities’ research and development expenditures.
Both the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University were ranked in the top quarter of research schools, amassing more than $1.3 billion in research and development expenditures for 2009.