May 22, 2007
I normally blog about direct relationships between technology and rights, but I'm stepping back to talk about an indirect relationship, one that's cropped up in my own backyard, at UC Berkeley, although they're relevant to anyone connected to a university in this day and age.
Careful readers might have noticed a theme in my posts: the connection between our rights and who holds the purse strings for new technology. Well, there's no need to do any sleuthing at UC Berkeley, these days–the university has recently announced a half-a-billion-dollar deal with BP to found an Energy Biosciences Institute to research "economically viable alternative energy sources." Following the money has never been so easy!
So what's the big deal about this big deal? Universities get tons of money from corporations (especially while the Federal government blows billions overseas rather than give it to education), right?
Robert Reich, faculty (and former Labor secretary under Clinton) said "this could be a feather in our caps, or a noose around our necks." So what should we be speaking up for; to make sure it's our caps and not our necks on the line?
1. What happens to academic freedom in the direction of research?
Defenders of the deal say the right to take BP's money is an academic freedom, but that depends what other choices are available. Unless we know what the contract looks like, we don't know how much control the corporation has, while the availability of such a large fund for some research can itself alter the focus of department attention. If BP, as a private company, must support research into products it can sell, what will happen to researchers interested in the impact of consumption patterns (who want us to change them), or the larger ecological impact of particular energy sources? The first is against the business model itself, and the second is something BP has a rather poor track record on. So how will the department maintain research on competing or contradictory tracks, when its funding is mostly dependent on one track?
Professor of Environmental Science And Policy Management (ESPM) Miguel Altieri said in the Academic Senate: "The field that I study, alternative agriculture, is going to die on this campus. When I retire no more research is going to be done in the field that I represent which is actually an alternative to climate change and industrial agriculture."
2. Will BP's alternate fuel sources make us energy independent and save the environment?
Unlikely. 19 out of 24 of the Institute's research areas on "alternate fuel sources" are biofuels. This is neither sustainable or environmentally sound, as well as being a huge handout to giant agribusiness companies who rely on genetically modified single-crop farms that exhaust the environment, contaminate non GMO crops, and drive up the price of major staple foods for the poor all over the world. In addition, as US gas consumption currently stands, local crops could meet about 12% of our biofuel needs, which would require us to depend on imports (so much for energy independence) and even more affect food access and the environment in the third world. It's these facts that led the mainstream free-market-friendly magazine The Economist to caption an anti-biofuels article "Castro Was Right" (in his opposition to biofuels). Anything that can bring Castro and The Economist together has got to be pretty serious!