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Why no campus protest over Berkeley-BP connection?

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.”

Dan Kammen, an expert in renewable energy at the school of public policy who isn’t connected with the institute, says he hasn’t detected any sign that its funding has starved other energy research. “It’s a large grant, but it hasn’t constrained work in other areas,” he told me.

A task force on industry partnerships formed by UC Berkeley’s academic senate after the founding of the energy institute said the university should be alert to the risk that such a collaboration might make it “an active participant in criminal conduct, human rights violations or environmental despoliation.”

Some members of the Berkeley community are asking whether the gulf spill should trigger the university’s termination rights under the contract.

“I’m not saying the spill is necessarily” an event warranting termination,” Brian A. Barsky, a Berkeley computer science professor who has raised the issue with colleagues, told me. “However, it seems to me that this is worthy of discussion, not solely because of the disastrous consequences, but the revelations pertaining to negligence.”

Law professor Christopher Kutz, the current chair of the academic senate, admits to being uneasy that BP’s conduct in the gulf eventually may be shown to have crossed the legal line; the U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation.

“I’m waiting to see that happens with the investigation,” he says. “The oil spill is tragic and clearly negligent, but that alone shouldn’t be enough to cause us to revoke the partnership. But if we’re getting into serious criminal negligence, deliberate indifference to environmental or health risks, then the university needs to think about who it’s working with.”

Who will drive that thought process at Berkeley? Nader the anthropology professor, for one, fears that the battle to maintain academic independence may already have been lost. “Berkeley is not a very progressive community anymore,” she laments. “It is now a corporate university with corporate values. Where are you going to get any dissent?”

Others believe that dissent is bred in Berkeley’s bone. “If there’s a reason to be concerned about the university’s connection to BP, there are many who will bring it up,” says Robert Reich, the former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, now a Berkeley professor of public policy. “This faculty and these students have never shown particular reticence with regard to hot issues.”

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at https://www.latimes.com/hiltzik, check out https://www.facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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