Just recently the renowned Göttinger Institute for Democratic Research has published a remarkable study on the motives of protest movements in Germany (“The new power of citizens”). While the book reveals interesting insights about who protests and why in 2012, it itself triggered public criticism – not for its content, but for who financed the study – the international petrol company BP. This triggered a larger debate about the role of transnational companies as financiers of research particularly into activism, which is occasionally also directed against such companies. Are research results used by companies to democratize economic projects or rather to further the economization of democratic concerns of citizens?

The German BP instructed the Göttinger research institute to conduct a study about recent protest events in Germany. The aim of the study was to gain a more thorough understanding of today’s activists, their motives, aims, and backgrounds. Some interesting empirical findings have been uncovered, for example, the archetype of the protest is the engineer (compared to the social scientist in the 1960s), who voices his concerns based on expert knowledge. In addition, most protesters do not belong to any religious confession (for an overview of the results see here ).

Yet the fact that a transnational company, which itself has been the focus of public scrutiny, is sponsoring this research has been criticized by some organizations such as lobby control and individuals. While the independence of the research of the Institute for Democratic Research is not questioned as such, it triggered a larger debate about the development that companies increasingly sponsor research on protest movements and mobilization.

In particular, protests against infrastructure projects seem to be of recent interests to companies. RWE for example sponsored an acceptance study (Akzeptanzstudie). The aim of the study was to gain insights on how to increase acceptance for infrastructure projects by civic participation. Questions explored in the study include:  “Where is Germany headed – are we on the way to becoming a ‘nimby’ (not in my back yard) republic? Are protests against large projects creating a negative impression among foreign investors?” (summary of the project).

Companies in danger of facing “Wutbürger” against their projects are longing to understand how they can handle situations where legal legitimization and administrative authorization of their economic actions is no longer regarded publicly legitimate by parts of the citizens.

This can put researchers in new normative dilemmas; less about the independence of their actual research, as this strong scientific norm is usually upheld, but about the actual usage of their findings. Two things are possible: Research findings can contribute to democratizing economic projects by giving voice to peoples’ concerns (similar to political opinion polls) and identifying democratic deficits within a project, which could ideally lead to a change in the planning and conduct of the project. But it is also possible that research results become part of a strategic game for public economic lobbying, contributing to managing and economizing democratic concerns of citizens. Indicators are the involvement of consultant companies, which specialize in strategically managing outrage and public criticism.

Corporate funding for research in universities and institutes has become a widespread phenomenon, and is likely to increase over the next years where public spendings are rare and political incentives for the engagement of companies are set (see for example the first engagement report of the German Government). But also protests itself made companies to take the offensive.

This development has lead transparency international Germany together with the “freien zusammenschluss von studentInnenschaften” and the German newspaper taz to started the website Hochschulwatch (university watch), where they collect information about cooperation between universities and companies. Such cooperation is not a problem per see; such initiatives are important to increase the transparency and critically reflect about the relationship and potential influence of economic interest in science.