Big Oil buys Berkeley

JENNIFER WASHBURN is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education."

ON FEB.1, the oil giant BP announced that it had chosen UC Berkeley, in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to lead the largest academic-industrial research alliance in U.S. history. If the deal is approved, BP will give $500 million over 10 years to fund a new multidisciplinary Energy Biosciences Institute devoted principally to biofuels research.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, UC administrators and BP executives immediately proclaimed the alliance — which is not yet a done deal — a victory for higher education and for the environment. But here’s another way to see it. For a mere $50 million a year, an oil company worth $250 billion would buy a chunk of America’s premier public research institutions, all but turning them into its own profit-making subsidiary.

This is shameful. The core mission of Berkeley is education, open knowledge exchange and objective research, not making money or furthering the interests of a private firm. In the last two decades, however, Cal and other universities — increasingly desperate for research dollars — have signed agreements that fail to protect their essential independence, allowing corporations excessive control over their research.


The BP deal magnifies this trend. Most corporations sponsor university research one study and one lab at a time. With the Energy Biosciences Institute, BP would exert influence over an entire academic research center (spanning 25 labs at its three public partners), bankrolling and setting the agenda for projects that cut across many departments.

What’s more, BP would set up shop on campus: 50 scientists employed by the company would work on joint projects with academic scientists at Berkeley and the University of Illinois. BP also would set up private labs on these campuses, where all the research would be proprietary and confidential.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and now a professor of public policy at Berkeley, has warned that — because of its size and commercial scope — the BP alliance could be either “a huge feather in Berkeley’s cap or a huge noose around Berkeley’s neck.” The question is, do rules and practices set up to safeguard academic integrity and independence stand up to a corporate deal of this magnitude?

The fine print of the plan, which UC made public only after it was leaked, doesn’t create much confidence. Californians need to know that their public university is dedicated to pursuing the best science, not just science that generates profits for BP. Unfortunately, the plan indicates that narrow commercial criteria could guide much of the Energy Biosciences Institute’s research.

Normally, even when university research is corporate sponsored, professors alone direct and shape it. Often, funds are assigned and research proposals are accepted through an independent, peer-review process. In the BP deal, however, the institute — with a director to be “proposed” by BP and other high-level positions to be filled by BP employees or appointees — would play a major role in setting research agendas and controlling purse strings. The plan touts the company’s role: BP’s “business industry leadership will strongly differentiate the EBI from other primarily academic research enterprises.”

The plan also would hand unusual control to BP in other areas. A bedrock principle of academia is that campus-based research should be published. That’s why Berkeley bans classified military research from campus; the open exchange of information is fundamental to the advancement of science and education. But those 50 BP scientists on campus would, according to the plan, have “no obligation to publish.”


Universities also, as a rule, hold the intellectual property rights in their research, no matter how it’s funded. In order to foster competition and innovation, they generally allow more than one company to use their discoveries for commercial purposes. This plan allows BP to co-own intellectual property in some instances and to receive exclusive (albeit time-limited) commercial licenses as well. The plan itself notes that such terms “deviate from standard policy” and “require exceptions to policy in order to be implemented.”

Ultimately, there is an even more basic question to consider. Would the institutionalization of BP at Berkeley call into question the essential objectivity of the research generated by the collaboration? BP is clearly investing its $500 million not just in public-good research; it’s hoping to advance an energy source it’s already committed to commercially. Given that there is nothing in the plan that calls for truly independent selection of research proposals, can the Energy Biosciences Institute be trusted to pursue research that might prove that biofuels are the wrong alternative-energy choice? Would its social sciences arm freely investigate potential ecological and economic downsides?

UC President Robert Dynes has characterized the BP deal in telling words. “It is my belief,” he said, “that we are reinventing the research university in this public-private partnership.”

Five hundred million dollars is a nice chunk of change, but does any amount of money justify “reinventing” UC Berkeley’s academic integrity? That’s what UC officials should ask themselves before they sign this deal.