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Why no campus protest over Berkeley-BP connection?

Given the events in the Gulf of Mexico, one would think the cozy relationship between the university and the oil giant in the form of the Energy Biosciences Institute would have set off an uproar by now.

July 30, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

Berkeley being Berkeley and BP being BP, one would have expected the very snug relationship between the university and the corporation to have produced a major campus uproar by now.

After all, UC Berkeley still retains its reputation as a hotbed of radicalism. And BP's image as a careless-at-best and criminal-at-worst despoiler of the environment grows with every accusation of corners cut and proper procedures not followed in the Gulf of Mexico.

What links the two institutions is a $500-million, 10-year deal that created the Energy Biosciences Institute, which devotes itself to such projects as making the manufacture of ethanol and other biofuels more efficient and finding new ways to extract oil and coal reserves through biological agents.

When signed in 2007, the deal was said to be the largest ever between a public university and a private corporation. It generated a fair amount of heat on campus at the time, especially over terms that denied Berkeley and its academic partners a clear majority on the institute's board. (The contract gives the London-based oil giant and the academics four board seats each.)

It was certainly no secret on campus that BP's goals included burnishing its reputation by affiliating with a prestigious university.

Then came the blowout of BP's rig in the gulf. "When all that began to unfold in April, I was waiting for the local hostiles to just go ape," says Bill Drummond, a Berkeley journalism professor (and former foreign correspondent for The Times) who chaired the university's academic senate at the time of the deal. "But it never happened."

Other faculty members also are perplexed by the silence, though they have varying explanations. Some say that perhaps the dispersal of students and faculty in summer makes it hard to assemble a critical mass of outrage, others that relentless budget cuts and the draining of other resources have made people wary of speaking out.

One thing you don't hear much from people who protested the arrangement in 2007 is that their original grounds for concern have disappeared. On the contrary, with corporate sponsorship playing an ever-increasing role in academic research, many argue that concern should be intensified.

Under the contract, the energy institute has two pieces. The largest block of $35 million a year pays for an "open component" of academic research by people working for Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois. ( Steven Chu, then the director of the Lawrence Lab and currently U.S. secretary of Energy, played an important role in the deal.)

The remaining $15 million annually funds a "proprietary component" — research by BP employees working in their own commercial lab on campus, where their work is safeguarded by corporate nondisclosure agreements and sequestered, in practical terms, behind closed doors.

This goes far beyond the arm's-length approach traditionally taken by U.S. universities toward their corporate sponsors, and blurs the customary boundary lines between "academic research" and "commercial research for hire," says a forthcoming study of corporate research deals by Jennifer Washburn, a longtime student of university research policies.

Sixteen BP employees currently work in the proprietary lab, says Graham Fleming, Berkeley's vice chancellor for research, compared with 320 researchers in the open lab.

Some on campus feared that the sheer scale of the BP contract would suppress energy research that didn't fit the energy institute's focus. "Every time you get money with strings attached, you get to do a certain kind of research which excludes others," says Laura Nader, a Berkeley professor of anthropology. "If you do biofuels, you're not going to do mass transportation and you're not going to do efficiency."

BP does have the right to terminate the contract if it determines that the "open component research" — that is, the portion ostensibly under Berkeley's control — "is no longer technically or commercially viable for BP."

That's a frank statement of BP's corporate interest in the institute, though campus officials assure me that no self-respecting Berkeley scientists would even think of tailoring a project to BP's interests.

For its part, the university can terminate the contract "if a discrete event were to occur or a change in facts and circumstances were to arise" making association with the institute a violation of its "fundamental principles."

No one has yet pointed to a specific case of BP overstepping the bounds of good partnership — say, by putting the kibosh on a proposed research project or blocking publication by a researcher.

Fleming argues that the events in the Gulf of Mexico "point out ever more clearly that what EBI is trying to do is really important — coming up with solutions to energy supply that don't involve drilling in politically or environmentally unstable regions of the planet."

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