For UW’s School of Energy Resources, transparency about funding is key.

Jan 25, 2013

The School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming is funded in large part with money from the energy industry. Other universities have gotten heat lately for not being open enough with their funding sources. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that some stakeholders are concerned about too much influence from energy at UW, but SER promises transparency. 

ZHOROV: One of the newest buildings on University of Wyoming’s campus is the School of Energy Resource’s Energy Innovation Center. It’s still under construction though already in use. The building is a nice embodiment of what SER has done since its founding in 2006 - the program has built up a presence on campus. And from his new headquarters, SER’s Director, Mark Northam, is already talking about the next step.                   

The school has already secured $10 million for new faculty and now he needs to raise $15 million from private funders which will be matched dollar for dollar by the state. That’s for another laboratory.

So far, Northam has raised $10.9 million of the $15 million he needs to reach. The donors?

NORTHAM: The companies that are contributing to date are Baker Hughes, Marathon, Ultra Petroleum, Hess, and Shell, and we have an additional   donor who we haven’t issued the press release yet, so that one I can’t name.

ZHOROV: SER’s mission is to research energy, to become a leader in energy research, and to do it in a way that’s beneficial to WY. One major focus is unconventional reservoirs – in other words, how to better get at hard to reach oil and gas. So it’s no surprise that energy companies would be interested in the school’s success. But such concentrated corporate funding in an academic institution has some stakeholders concerned.

NORTHAM: We are very aware of that and very upfront with both the donors and the public that A) we do receive money from industry but B) they do not influence the outcomes of the research. As long as, I think, we are upfront about that we shouldn’t have any problems.  

ZHOROV: But is it that easy?

NORTHAM: I was one of the original members of the School of Energy Resources faculty and I’m one of the few in the school that’s concerned with renewable energy, and specifically solar energy.

ZHOROV: That’s Professor Bruce Parkinson, the solar panel guy, as he calls himself.

Although research in renewable energy is one of UW’s energy objectives, too, Parkinson is outnumbered by fossil fuel guys at SER.

PARKINSON: It’s partially because the renewable energy industry isn’t as rich and established as the fossil fuel industry is, and so they don’t give the big donation to the school of energy and therefore there’s obviously much less emphasis on it from both the number of faculty and the allocation of resources.   

ZHOROV: The advising council for SER is also dominated by fossil fuel guys, though the Director of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources sits on it, as well as a representative from a wind company. Northam also points out that environmental advocates are invited to speak at many of SER’s conferences.

For Powder River Basin Resource Council Board member, Bob LeResche, the problem is not enough balance.

LERESCHE: The school seems to be like a big Packman amoeba sort of thing there, kind of swallowing up certain disciplines that might be better off being independent of any specific energy influence.

ZHOROV: For him, that’s a practical problem.

LERESCHE: We’re coming to a big conflict in this state between some of the new oil and gas production methods and our water resources. If the university research having to do with water resources is concentrated in the SER, which is funded primarily by the energy industry, that could lead to future problems.  

ZHOROV: Leresche also points out that while the rest of the University was figuring out how to deal with budget cuts, SER was granted the 15 million in matching funds and 10 million dollars for faculty. And for him, the fact that UW is Wyoming’s only university is all the more reason to broaden its focus, not narrow it.

LERESCHE: So if we develop a narrow little expertise, even though it might be admired throughout the world, it’s very short sighted.

ZHOROV: Since the mid-1960s research and development funding from the federal government has been going down while industry’s investments steadily increase. Corporate laboratories used to do a lot of research but they’re shrinking, like the communications giant Bell Laboratories, or shutting down altogether.  

Vice President for Research and Economic Development at UW, William Gern, says federal funds are also getting more competitive. Still, work needs to get done, so industry is outsourcing its research needs to universities and universities are gladly taking industry’s money.

GERN: Wyoming is Wyoming and we see a fair amount of that coming from the energy sector.

ZHOROV: But Gern sees it as an expansion, not a narrowing of research for SER.

GERN: I see it as the basket mouth of UW research as getting broader because of the influence that SER has had for us and which it continues to have for us and because of the real interest, especially in the gas, oil, and coal industry, and we have a lot to give them.

ZHOROV: Still, while Gern emphasizes that UW must proceed, it must do so with caution.

GERN: People depend upon universities to become the neutral purveyor of information, and so the real issues that we confront in this office doesn’t have to do with veracity of the research, it really has to do with thing like the publishibility of the results, how graduate students can be involved in that research, and really how we handle intellectual property issues.

ZHOROV: For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.