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Mining Universities by Kristen Lyons and Carol Richards

Research in today’s mining-funded tertiary sector

Australia’s economic growth and national identity have been widely celebrated as being founded on the nation’s natural resources. With the golden era of pastoralism fading into the distance, a renewed love affair with primary industries has been much lauded, particularly by purveyors of neoliberal ideology. The considerable wealth generated by resource extraction has, despite its environmental and social record, proved seductive to the university sector. The mining industry is one of a number of industries and sectors (alongside pharmaceutical, chemical and biotechnological) that is increasingly courting Australian universities. These new public–private alliances are often viewed as the much-needed cash cow to bridge the public funding shortfall in the tertiary sector. However, this trend also raises profound questions about the capacity of public good institutions, as universities were once assumed to be, to maintain institutional independence and academic freedoms.

The mining sector is now present in Australian universities in unprecedented ways. For example, since 1992, the Australian Coal Association Research Program has funded $145 million to over 929 projects. In 2005–6 it directed a further $13.1 million into eighty new projects. Similarly, the Minerals Council of Australia has allocated $15 million to the Minerals Tertiary Education Council, and approximately a further $1.2 million per year, to develop course materials and employ academic staff. Mining Education Australia has also established a venture between a number of universities to establish a National Mining Engineering School, with outcomes that aim to ‘recast the way they teach’ undergraduate programs. Fossil fuel companies have also positioned themselves in universities via the active sponsorship of university chairs and academic posts, including the founding of the somewhat ironically named Alcoa Curtin Centre for Stronger Communities.

Despite the awkward fit between corporate investment and rigorous, independent research, the Australian government endorses university–private sector collaboration. In the 2009 Powering Ideas report, for example, the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research stated the aim of fostering a doubling in the level of collaboration between Australian universities and business over the next decade.

In this article we describe the circumstances that have led to this convergence, as well the extent to which this represents the capture of the tertiary sector by mining interests. We conclude by examining what this means for research independence and integrity.

Universities as the New Corporate Partners

Universities have a long-standing tradition of engaging in research for the ‘public good’ and for supporting academic freedoms, including critical and independent thinking. Yet enthusiasm for the role that universities might play in ensuring a healthy public life is not matched in funding terms, with Australian universities experiencing a downward turn in public funding since the 1980s. While tertiary sector funding was significantly whittled down by the Howard regime, its most recent blow has come from the current federal Labor government’s proposed Gonski reforms that will cut $2.3 billion from the university sector over next four years.

The decline in government funding has occurred alongside the expansion in university engagement in ‘entrepreneurial’ income-generating activities, including expanding financial links with private sector and philanthropic groups, increasing full fee and international students as an income stream, and a growing emphasis on investment portfolios. In his book Whackademia, Richard Hil describes these trends as part and parcel of the corporatisation of universities. And while Universities have become increasingly absorbed in measuring inputs (grants, income) and outputs (publications), DIISR acknowledges such measures fall well short in gauging the impacts of privatising research funding on the social and environmental good of research.

In recent years the University of Queensland (UQ), where we are both currently employed, has established a Centre for Coal Seam Gas within its Sustainable Minerals Institute. The Centre’s website describes its membership model, where a contribution of $500,000 secures a seat at the Strategic Advising Board (SAB), the agenda setting table. Three CSG companies have committed to provide annual funding over at least the next five years: Queensland Gas Company $2 million (four seats on the SAB), Arrow Energy and Santos each $500,000 (and one seat on the SAB each). Whilst the Centre states it would like to encourage membership from individuals and community groups, the $500,000 minimum fee to join the Strategic Advising Board is clearly prohibitive. This means that is unlikely the Centre will be involved in ‘public good’ research such as farmer suicide clusters in mining/extraction regions or full life cycle assessment or biodiversity impacts of CSG. In classic neoliberal style, this ‘table fee’ has created a new market where no market previously existed. While it allows industries that benefit from research to make a financial contribution, it also excludes others interested in a rigorous evaluation of the social, environmental and economic costs of a highly controversial industry. Journalist Graham Readfearn has described this scenario as ‘Frackademia’, where coal seam gas industry interests increasingly govern research, including establishing research agendas and guidelines around the communication of results.

In recent years UQ has also received $350,000 from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) to fund research. The IPA is a ‘think tank’ with links to the Liberal Party and the fossil fuel industry, whose activities demonstrate a long commitment to countering climate science and support for climate sceptics. Not unexpectedly, the acceptance of this funding caused a fracture amongst the UQ academic community. The polarisation of positions was exacerbated by the particularly non-transparent nature of the IPA’s conduct related to its funding sources, although as Sourcewatch elaborates, there is evidence that much of its funding has come from the oil and mining industries, including Exxon, Shell, Caltex and BHP-Billiton. UQ’s industry investments are not just from the fossil fuels industry. In recent years it has also initiated a $10 million collaboration with Dow Chemical, a company linked to the Bhopal chemical disaster in India. Likewise, the Global Change Institute’s Food Security focal area has received sponsorship from agri-chemical company Syngenta.

The convergence of universities with the private sector goes both ways, with universities investing in mining and fossil fuels industries. The Lock the Campus campaign has documented some of the ways in which universities are supporting the coal and gas industries via their investment portfolios. For example, the Australian National University has been a significant investor in CSG company MetGasCo. Given the opaque nature of many of these transactions between mining and tertiary education, it is not currently possible to gather a clear picture of the extent of these financial alliances. Indeed, in an Australia Institute paper, Hamilton and Downie propose it may be easier to gain such information from mining companies themselves, rather than universities.

Corporate Funding of ‘Independent Research’

The public–private ‘collaborations’ we discuss here pose significant challenges for both real and perceived academic freedoms, with outcomes that may alter the very fabric of public good institutions and public debates.

As part of her 2012 Boyer Lecture, Marcia Langton described mining as having delivered some positive outcomes for Indigenous communities in Australia. In itself, this is not a highly controversial statement and of course it is couched in the broader commonly accepted understanding that there are winners and losers in any large-scale development intervention, including mining. Yet, what Langton, and the ABC who aired her lecture, were accused of, was failing to disclose that part of the research on which this claim was based was funded by Rio Tinto and other mining companies. The public conversation that arose from this pointed to the damage that can be done simply by failing to disclose the source of our research funding, particularly when the findings positively reflect the sponsor. Yet where does responsibility lie for disclosure of such information, when universities themselves are structured in ways that obfuscate such details?

There are fundamental questions about the extent to which research funding shapes research outcomes. There is also a long history that demonstrates the so-called funding effect: that when compared to government and non-profit funded sciences, industry-sponsored studies tend to support conclusions that benefit industry. This has been documented, for example, in the tobacco industries’ investment in university research in the United States, including Phillip Morris’s imposition of contractual restrictions upon researchers.

In another recent exposé we find Bob Carter, an adjunct research professor at James Cook University with a long-standing record of denying climate science. According to Sourcewatch he is also on the payroll of the Heartland Institute, a climate sceptical ‘think tank’. On his personal webpage Carter declares that ‘he receives no research funding from special interest organisations such as environmental groups, energy companies or government departments’, a smoke and mirrors claim that matches his reporting of climate science.

It has been argued that industry funding doesn’t have to equate to research bias and skewing of results. However, the problem remains when institutes, including the UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, fail to make available the very basic information on which research integrity can be assessed. Indeed, the Sustainable Minerals Institute has been publicly shamed in The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education Supplement for not reporting funding arrangements, with the then Vice Chancellor Paul Greenfield, committing the Institute to making public annual reports in the future.

Despite significant transparency, integrity and accountability issues, opposing voices are seldom heard. This reflects something of a discursive struggle, according to Peter Ferguson of the University of Melbourne, whereby the New Right, neoliberal agenda has gained ideological hegemony in normalising the denigration of progressive and collectivist ideas such as environmentalism. In universities, despite protests from students and staff including the recently established Research Integrity Coalition at UQ—these financial relationships continue to be pursued with much vigour, with those questioning these funding arrangements accused of having an environmentalist agenda or lefty sentiments. Those who challenge the system from within may also find themselves marginalised, questioned, undermined (pardon the pun) and cast as troublesome fringe-dwellers (watch this space)—such is the institutional hegemony of New Right neoliberalism. Yet despite the hype that links Australia’s future economic security with an expanding mining sector, the ‘mining boom’ employs just 1.9 per cent of the Australian workforce, and with 83 per cent foreign ownership, is enabling significant profits to flow off-shore.

We have raised fundamental questions about the research integrity and academic freedoms when public institutions such as universities accept funding from mining corporations. Yet the blurring of edges between the interests of funders, investment portfolios and university research, raise substantial questions about the ability of universities to maintain integrity and transparency, and to avoid conflicts of interest. The ‘normalising’ of this discourse in an increasingly corporatised university sector presents a difficult environment for robust debate and resistance from within. Indeed, while many staff lament serving corporate universities, many are fearful of challenging the corporate managerialism that brings about these public/private partnerships. Yet the time to challenge research capture is arguably more urgent than ever, given the scale of environmental and social impacts associated with Australia’s fossil fuel industries. Surely Australian universities have a moral responsibility to maintain independent, transparent and ethical governance models that engage research and practice that will safeguard the future of our planet? We know that’s the kind of tertiary education sector we want.

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