Many details hidden in UMass corporate research agreements

  • Heavily redacted paragraphs are shown as part of a sponsored research agreement between the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Raytheon in 2015. This document and 10 others like it have been redacted by the university under an exemption to the state’s public records law intended for such research agreements. SCREENSHOT/UMass Amherst

  • Part of a sponsored research agreement that the University of Massachusetts Amherst signed to with the company The Dow Chemical Company in 2016. The agreement is filled with redactions the university made under an exemption to the state's public records law intended for such research agreements that UMass has signed. SCREENSHOT/UMass Amherst

  • Part of a sponsored research agreement that the University of Massachusetts Amherst signed with the company IBM in 2017. The agreement is filled with redactions the university made under an exemption to the state’s public records law intended for such research agreements that UMass has signed. SCREENSHOT/UMASS AMHERST

  • Part of a sponsored research agreement that the University of Massachusetts Amherst signed to with the PepsiCo in 2009. The agreement is filled with redactions the university made under an exemption to the state’s public records law intended for such research agreements that UMass has signed. SCREENSHOT/UMASS AMHERST

  • Part of a sponsored research agreement that the University of Massachusetts Amherst signed to with the chemical company BASF in 2013. The agreement is filled with redactions the university made under an exemption to the state’s public records law intended for such research agreements that UMass has signed. SCREENSHOT/UMASS AMHERST

  • Part of a sponsored research agreement that the University of Massachusetts Amherst signed with the company Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of the military contractor United Technologies, in 2014 and renewed in 2017. SCREENSHOT/UMASS AMHERST

Staff Writer
Published: 11/18/2020 3:36:53 PM

AMHERST — Bomb manufacturers and defense contractors. Fortune 500 beverage and chemical corporations. Communications and technology behemoths.

These are some of the industry giants with which the University of Massachusetts Amherst has struck sponsored research agreements, where companies agree to pay for research projects at the university. Through a public records request, the Gazette has obtained 16 such agreements signed between 2009 and 2019 with companies including AT&T, Dow Chemical Company, General Motors, Raytheon, IBM, PepsiCo and Siemens Medical Solutions.

A Gazette analysis of the sponsored corporate research agreements the university’s Innovation Institute has signed raises questions about private and public benefit; how corporations may be able to steer the focus of academic research; whether the interests of private industry infringe on academic freedom; and about the transparency of those contracts.

At UMass Amherst, public funding still makes up the majority of research dollars received, though public funding dropped from 76% to 64% of total research funding at the university over the past decade. And while federal funding has grown by 6% over the past five years throughout the UMass system, industry- and nonprofit-sponsored research grew 43%.

A steady stream of funding throughout that five-year period came from private industry, which accounted for 7% of all research dollars awarded at UMass Amherst in fiscal year 2019. Corporate research expenditures at UMass Amherst grew from $6.5 million in fiscal year 2014 to $10 million in fiscal year 2019.

In a statement, Mike Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass Amherst, said that industry-sponsored research benefits companies, the university and the public; and that research creates opportunities for students and faculty, as well as for the economy.

“These collaborations with industry greatly increase the chances that research results will be commercialized and, in that way, available to the public,” he said.

Others at the university, however, have questioned whether wedding research to corporate interests could undermine the university’s public mission — part of which is to conduct “programs of research and public service that advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world.”

UMass Amherst historian of science Sigrid Schmalzer, who is part of the organization Science for the People, outlined her concerns. “At the most basic level, the funding sources shape the questions that researchers ask: When, for example, chemical corporations fund entomological research, we learn less about ecology and more about how to kill insects with chemicals produced by corporations,” Schmalzer said.

Some of the companies UMass Amherst has partnered with have been named as the country’s top polluters. UMass Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute, or PERI, has named Dow Chemical and German chemical producer BASF — which struck a research agreement with UMass Amherst in 2013 — as two of the country’s top water polluters. Those two companies also made the top 10 of PERI’s “Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index,” and several other university research partners made that list as well: General Motors; the paint, coating and materials company PPG Industries; and the French materials and solutions manufacturer Saint-Gobain.

David Gross, a biochemistry and molecular biology professor who retired from UMass Amherst in 2019, said that he saw federal funding for basic research drop significantly over his 33-year career at the university. He said that drop in public funding can force scientists to look for private funding — even if there are strings attached — and places more pressure on younger researchers who have to secure money and publish their research to get tenure.

“Does that really fit in with the ideals of a public institution that views academic freedom as important?” asked Gross, who says he has never taken funding from a company. “That’s where the friction is for almost everybody who thinks about private money funding research in an open public institution.”

Gross said that what suffers is research that’s “risky” — exploring big questions that could lead to important discoveries, but may also lead to a dead end.

“The thought is that private industry, capitalism, will fill in the gaps,” Gross said. “And capitalism fills in the gaps where it sees a gain. So in areas that need to be supported in order to make new discoveries — the risky places— capitalism is kind of shy in going that direction.”

In some cases, the contracts UMass Amherst has signed with corporations contain language that conflicts with recommendations for academy-industry engagement put forth by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP — an organization founded in 1915 largely as a response to corporate influence on academic freedom. All the agreements provided to the Gazette are filled with redactions that UMass is able to make due to an exemption in the state’s public records law meant for such research agreements.

In addition to the previously mentioned companies, UMass Amherst has struck research agreements with Belgian chemical company Solvay; Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of the military contractor United Technologies; the British defense, security and aerospace company BAE Systems; the high-performance networking corporation Juniper Networks; medical equipment manufacturer Spacelabs Healthcare; and SRCCO Inc., an affiliate of the Semiconductor Research Corporation.

Public, private benefits

In one research agreement with the food and beverage behemoth PepsiCo, contract language allows the corporation to request changes to a research project in order to make the research more profitable.

“Research Institution agrees to make all mutually-agreed upon modifications or amendments to the Research Project as may be requested by Sponsor where such modifications or amendments are required or are desirable in order to facilitate the attainment of the goals of the Research Project or to enhance the commercial value of the Research,” reads a clause in the PepsiCo contract.

Companies’ interest in these kinds of research agreements stem from the profitable deliverables they hope will come from the projects — patentable inventions, product development or proof of concept, for example.

The university’s contract with the chemical company BASF says as much, explaining that both parties believe the partnership “will speed up the development in research and will lead to a faster commercialization of developments.” The contract even features a fee schedule that shows “milestone payments” BASF will make to UMass based on deliverables, from $5,000 for filing a patent on a chemical product to $1 million for the successful development of a product in the field of “active ingredients for pharma.”

In his statement, Malone said that with both industry funding and public funding, it is common to see contractual provisions for “adapting research directions to new and more interesting areas.”

“Many funding sources, public or private, have specific objectives and condition their support on achieving them in the most effective manner, which may only come to light during the project work,” he said.

In some cases, the researchers or university administrators overseeing a particular research agreement have previously been on that company’s payroll or own stock in the company.

College of Information and Computer Sciences Dean Laura Haas, for example, leads the steering committee for the university’s research agreement with IBM, together with an IBM representative. Haas worked at IBM for 36 years before joining UMass, and currently owns IBM stock, according to the statement of financial interest she filed this year with the state’s Ethics Commission.

In an email, Haas said she is sensitive to possibilities of conflict of interest but that there is none when it comes to the research agreement with IBM, which she said was “in the works long before I arrived at UMass.” She added that she did not work with the IBM research group that is party to the agreement and that her role on the steering committee is “mostly pro forma.”

“This is a research project, it’s not work-for-hire, so the faculty member is the one directing it, and responsible for meeting the terms of the agreement,” Haas wrote. “I could not influence the direction of the research, any more than I could influence IBM’s business.”

Malone worked as a visiting scientist at the chemical company DuPont, which in 2017 merged with Dow Chemical. Dow has a research agreement with UMass Amherst, as does BASF, where Malone previously did consulting or teaching work, according to his UMass faculty webpage. Malone has also done extensive consulting for private industry over his career. According to his recent statement of financial interest with the state Ethics Commission, in 2019 he made between $40,000 and $60,000 consulting with The Chemours Company FC — a chemical business that spun off from DuPont in 2015.

In a statement, Malone said that he consulted for many companies during his faculty career in chemical engineering, before he became vice chancellor. Now, because of his role in research administration, Malone said that university policies prohibit him from consulting for a company while supervising research that that company sponsors.

Malone noted that outside activities like consulting require disclosure and approval by a department chair, so that conflicts can be managed “through transparency and other appropriate safeguards, rather than banning them entirely.” That allows faculty experts to directly contribute to the commercialization of their research, he said.

Licensing

One American Association of University Professors recommendation for academy-industry collaboration suggests that universities should avoid providing exclusive licenses of patentable inventions to companies “unless such licenses are absolutely necessary to foster follow-on use or to develop an invention that would otherwise languish.”

However, many of the contracts obtained by the Gazette provide opportunities for private companies to obtain an exclusive license on inventions created by UMass or jointly created by UMass and the company in question.

For example, in its contract with IBM, UMass grants the company “an option to attempt to negotiate a license to exclusively Commercialize” sole UMass inventions and joint inventions “on commercially reasonable terms and conditions.” The university has granted PepsiCo “a first option to obtain a worldwide, royalty-bearing exclusive license (with the right to sublicense)” on UMass intellectual property or joint intellectual property conceived or developed under its research agreement, provided that the company demonstrates “diligent efforts” to commercialize that intellectual property in the public interest.

The research contracts also spell out which party owns any particular invention resulting from the research. In most cases, university inventions become the property of the university, company inventions are owned by the company, and joint inventions are owned by both parties.

However, in some contracts, the scope of what is considered a company’s invention is fairly broad. In its agreement with Raytheon, for example, an employee of Raytheon is defined to include “those employees that may also be students of the University or may have an appointment from the University.” Any inventions by those employees “shall be and remain the sole and exclusive property of Raytheon,” the agreement stipulates.

In some cases, it’s impossible for the public to learn what licensing terms UMass Amherst has agreed to because the university has entirely redacted those sections of its contracts with companies.

Researcher restrictions

Some research agreements are with companies that work on military technologies — General Motors, Raytheon and Pratt & Whitney, for example. That kind of work is regulated by U.S. export and import controls laws and regulations, including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, and the Export Administration Regulations, also known as EAR.

Because of those regulations, contracts with those companies restrict who can work on the research. In its contract with IBM, for example, UMass agrees not to send “foreign nationals from an Embargoed/Terrorist Country to perform work at IBM.” That includes anyone from Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Some of the contracts contradict an AAUP principle related to academic publication rights. This AAUP recommendation states that schools should only agree to a maximum delay of 30 to 60 days before publishing research results in order for research partners to remove any proprietary or confidential information, or to file patents and other intellectual property protections.

Many UMass Amherst contracts have waiting periods of 90 days, however. For example, a research agreement with the U.S. arm of the Belgian chemical company Solvay provides the corporation with at least 30-day advanced notice of a proposed disclosure of research results. The company can then request another 30 days for review of the publication and an additional 30 days in order to prepare and file a patent application.

Transparency

Beyond those details, little else can be gleaned from the research contracts because of redactions UMass Amherst can make under the state’s public records exemption that allows withholding “trade secrets or other proprietary information of the University of Massachusetts, including trade secrets or proprietary information provided to the University by research sponsors or private concerns.”

Malone said that protecting proprietary information is important “so that investments in development and commercialization can be recouped when the effort is successful.”

“That the Legislature also supported this exclusion from the open records regulations is important,” he said. “Much fundamental research without any obvious application is also not made public until it is completed and reviewed for publication.”

In the university’s contract with IBM, even the subject of the research being conducted is redacted. The agreement states that “UMass and IBM would like to work together on various joint research and development projects in the area of (redacted) research.”

For one of UMass Amherst’s research agreements — with the defense contractor Raytheon — the Gazette filed a public records request for any projects undertaken as part of the agreement. In response, the university turned over 11 heavily redacted Raytheon purchase orders representing almost $1.5 million in projects. In all 11 documents, entire pages about the proposed work are blacked out.

As for whether the research agreements create any possible conflicts of interest, that too is unknown.

In December 2019, the Gazette submitted a public records request for the faculty conflict-of-interest filings Malone mentioned. Those forms contain disclosures of “outside activity,” such as consulting, and of intellectual property and commercial ventures. UMass Amherst has fought the release of those documents despite several rulings from the state’s supervisor of records ordering the university to turn them over.

After the state’s latest determination on Aug. 26 that UMass “must produce the records,” the university told the Gazette it would comply with the ruling. However, on Oct. 20, the university sent over only a fraction of the records with essential information redacted.

This article has been updated to include a clarification about UMass Amherst’s research agreement with PepsiCo. The university has granted the company an option to obtain an exclusive license on UMass intellectual property or joint intellectual property conceived or developed under its research agreement with the university.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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