UC Berkeley biofuels deal stirs debate
A $500-million deal between UC Berkeley and oil giant BP to establish a joint energy laboratory has prompted growing protests by students and faculty who fear the arrangement will compromise the university’s integrity.
Some critics charge that the privately negotiated pact will turn the campus into “UCBP.” And they question aspects of the deal that would give the oil company unusual influence at the campus, including exclusive control over some of the institute’s expected findings.
The agreement between the University of California and BP was announced with great fanfare in January by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other dignitaries as a way to develop new sources of energy and reduce global warming.
Proponents say the goal of the new Energy Biosciences Institute will be to develop clean, sustainable sources of energy and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. But much of its initial focus will be on developing biofuels from plants and improving the extraction of petroleum from existing reserves.
Because of BP’s involvement, some critics say, the institute will focus on maintaining the current culture of automobiles powered by liquid fuel rather than searching for a wider range of alternative energy sources.
BP plans to assign as many as 50 scientists to the institute who will work with professors and students at Berkeley and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a partner in the project. The state of California will contribute $40 million for the institute.
As the university and the oil company negotiate in private over the precise terms of the partnership, opponents have sought to slow or scuttle the deal by demanding that the university be more open about what it is giving to BP in exchange for the money.
“Safeguards must be in place to prevent BP from controlling the research program, winning exclusive patent rights from any research products and ‘greenwashing’ its image in a PR campaign about the partnership,” said John Simpson, a spokesman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
The issue came to a head Thursday when 17 professors critical of the deal called on the Academic Senate to approve two resolutions that would have given the Berkeley faculty a say over the agreement with BP.
“This is a debate about the balance that ought to be struck between those massive organizations whose goal is profit, and the university, whose goals and responsibilities are different,” art history professor Anne Wagner, a co-sponsor of the resolution, told her colleagues.
Wagner urged the Academic Senate to adopt the measures, arguing that the BP deal put UC in danger of “becoming the corporation’s paid servant with more and more of the outcomes of hired research never entering the public realm.”
But supporters of the new institute, who made up a majority of the faculty members present at the senate meeting, feared that adoption of the two measures would have made the negotiations unmanageable and would have prompted BP to pull out of the deal.
After a lengthy debate dominated by wrangling over parliamentary maneuvering, the senate rejected the resolutions and adopted two watered-down proposals that called for key faculty members to play an advisory role in the negotiations.
“The Academic Senate believes that any intervention on the basis of assumptions about the moral or political standing of the donor is unwarranted,” said one of the alternate measures overwhelmingly approved on a voice vote by the nearly 300 professors present.
The defeat of the critics’ resolutions illustrates a growing rift between faculty members in the physical sciences, who fear restrictions on research funds, and faculty members in the liberal arts, who are concerned about corporate influence on the university.
As state and federal funding has declined in recent years, many scientific researchers have turned to corporate donors for funding despite the financial interest that companies may have in the results.
The tobacco industry funds a variety of tobacco-related studies at four UC campuses, for example, and some faculty, students and regents are calling for the UC system to ban such funding. The regents are set to consider a ban in May.
But on Thursday, the focus was on BP and the internal dynamics of Berkeley.
“This was about the polarization of the physical sciences and the humanities,” said Academic Senate chairman and journalism professor William Drummond after the meeting. “It has a lot to do with the resources. If Berkeley is going to remain a great university, we are going to have to learn how to live together.”