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Study's Merits Lost in Debate Over Funding

It is September 21, 1987. In the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington a crowd of journalists and congressional aides is briefed on a new research study advocating an oil import fee. The report makes the front page of The Boston Globe and gets prominent coverage in The Wall Street Journal.

The fanfare which accompanied the release of the report was hardly typical of most academic research findings. Called "Energy Security Revisited," the report was prepared by two scholars at the Kennedy School's Energy and Environmental Policy Center (EEPC) and was heavily promoted by public relations specialists hired by companies who backed the study's findings.

While the study was billed as an attempt togenerate momentum for an oil import tariff, itsucceeded most in calling attention to itself.Many reporters who attended the briefing say thatthey were suspicious of the hard-sell packaging ofthe report and of its funding sources. And thoughCapitol Hill never made much movement on oilimport fee legislation, several major funders ofthe EEPC who opposed such a fee have seemed tomake a point of distancing themselves from thecenter.

The authors concede that the report did nothave the intended effects on public policy norreceived much attention in academic circles. Butthey contend that the report was successfulbecause it challenged an earlier Department ofEnergy (DOE) study and attracted widespreadpublicity.

But the publicity was not the result of thecontents of the report, as is usually the case inacademia, but instead stemmed from a well-craftedpublicity campaign. Independent oil companies whofavor an oil import fee provided much of thefunding for the EEPC project and the publicitycampaign was directed by those companies' offices.

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The result of this unusual background has beento lead many, including officials at the center,to wrestle again with what has long been anethical dilemma in academia: when does researchstop being academic and start becoming paidpromotional material?

Written by Bradshaw Professor of Public PolicyWilliam H. Hogan and EEPC Assistant Director BijanMossavar-Rahmani, the report advocates a $5 abarrel oil import fee, saying that a tariff willhelp reduce American dependence on oil sourcesfrom the volatile Persian Gulf area. In addition,the study challenges the findings of a 1987 DOEreport, called "Energy Security," which the EEPCsays miscalculated by $200 billion the costs of anoil import fee.

The bulk of the funding for the study came fromtwo independent oil companies. Mitchell Energy andDevelopment Corporation provided a $5000 grant forthe study, according to Mossavar-Rahmani. AndEnergy Security Policy, Inc.--a group started bythe Apache Corporation, one of the largestdomestic oil producers--gave about $50,000directly to the project, which cost the centerabout $75,000 to produce, according to EEPCDirector Irwin M. Stelzer.

The rest of the funding came from theassociates of the Harvard International EnergyProgram, a group of donors which includes Apache,Chevron, Texaco, the DOE and the governments ofVenezuela, Spain and Japan. Except for Apache, allof those donors strongly oppose any oil importfee. But each contributed only a small fraction tothe project and none had specially earmarked thefunds for the study.

To add to the perception that the study wasbiased by the funding, Mossavar-Rahmani, thereport's co-author, is currently on leave from hisHarvard position to serve as president of Apache,a job which he accepted about six months ago.

Mossavar-Rahmani says there is no conflictbetween his research findings in favor ofindependent oil companies such as Apache and hisjob which he accepted six months ago. He says hedoes not deal with the domestic oil industry inhis new position and therefore that the researchhe produced is not tainted.

The report's authors contend that they werestraightforward about the funding for theresearch, and that it in no way biased the outcomeof their study. Furthermore, the center for thelast 10 years has produced research advocating anoil import fee, suggesting that the report'sconclusions were not altered to suit the donorswishes. Instead, center officals say, it may havebeen that the oil companies were aware of theopinon's of those at the center, and, in search ofa study backing an oil import fee, the EEPC wasmerely the logical choice.

The report's authors say that far from beingunduly solicitous of donors, they actuallyjeopardized the center's financial base by issuinga report which challenged the views of some of itsmajor contributors, including multi-national oiland chemical companies and the federal government.

The DOE stopped all its funding for thecenter--it had previously been the EEPC's largestdonor, giving between $100,000 $200,000 ayear--after the report was released. And UnionCarbide, which had donated $15,000 annually, alsocut off funding because it disagreed with thestudy's findings.

According to center officials, the Venezuelangovernment, which gives money to the EEPC and isagainst an oil tariff, "came out and said it was abiased study" although they did not withdraw theirmoney from the center.

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