Michael Hiltzik: BP’s cash spill at Berkeley


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Most people may not have noticed, but a small band of protesters showed up at the construction site of a building designed to house the $500-million collaboration between BP and UC Berkeley, the Energy Biosciences Institute. Of course, the institute is already 3 years old, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico already 100 days old. Berkeley protesters used to be quicker off the mark than that.

As my Sunday column reports, the issues implicated in BP’s massive donation to the University of California involve both BP’s own attitude toward academic research and the influence that big corporations increasingly exercise in academia. The oil company has been placing academic researchers at the gulf on contract, on terms that reportedly restrict their ability to publish findings about the effect of the spill in public. That has raised the hackles of the American Assn. of University Professors, whose president, Cary Nelson, warns that it might be a harbinger of academic restrictions yet to come.


The huge scale of BP’s collaboration with UC Berkeley provoked that campus’ Academic Senate to promulgate a set of rules and guidelines for future contracts, They can be found here. The university’s research management, however, has so far refused to accept them.

The column starts below.

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.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik