At the University of California, Davis, researchers are regularly invited to attend on-campus meet-and-greets with potential corporate funders to discuss possible sponsorship opportunities. Handshakes and business cards are routinely exchanged—so are nondisclosure agreements.

Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biologist at U.C. Davis, says such meetings and the attendant nondisclosure agreements are commonplace and that it’s university administrators—rather than the corporations themselves—who encourage their professors and researchers to attend. Eisen describes one meeting in which a company started out by passing around a document. “It was a 13-page agreement, and I refused to sign it,” Eisen says. “I said: ‘Look, there are 20 things in here I don’t understand and 15 things I completely disagree with. There’s no way I’m signing it.’”

But, unlike Eisen, many in the scientific community and academia do sign the NDAs—creating blind spots that make it impossible for the rest of the world to discern whether a corporation has had any undue influence on research. I spent a year poring over documents and talking to universities, companies, lawyers, and researchers to figure out what kind of role corporate funding plays in public-university studies across the United States. Nearly all of the people I spoke with talked about the increasing ease with which corporate representatives have access to researchers, although some were more comfortable with the arrangement than others.

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