Larisa Mann

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!


3. What about the freedom to share and get access to knowledge?

Although, as Nature magazine comments "it is rare for industry to house its scientists in public buildings on state university property up to 50 BP researchers will have positions at UC. They don't appear to be required to publish their findings, something regular professors usually do. This means that knowledge may be kept secret for private gain. What's to ensure that the public or even the students and graduate students working on it will benefit from this work? Especially when UC President Robert Dynes announced the deal he admitted that "certain discoveries" will be exclusively controlled by BP. Shall we just trust that the company knows what's best for everyone, even if that goes against its duty to make a profit for its shareholders?


4. What about the mission creep of the university (especially a public one)?

Even with 500 million dollars from BP, UC is still a public university, with a public mission. Millions of taxpayer dollars go into it every year. These institutions exist for the good of the nation and all its people. How do we know that bargains are being made with that in mind? Especially since so few at Berkeley were let in on the deal! And how can we trust that the balance of the product will be in the public interest, and not just BP? Given that up to 50 company employees will be on campus and able to develop and teach classes, mentor graduate students, and do outreach to youth? That makes it look like a sweet marketing and publicity campaign for BP. is that the same thing as education?

Many at UC Berkeley and elsewhere are concerned about this deal, some pointing to an earlier deal between the College of Natural Resources and Novartis, which was controversial at the time, and expired amid criticisms on these and other issues. It is not a hopeful example on several of the above points.

On academic freedom: Professor Ignacio Chapela, who had been highly critical of the Novartis deal, was later denied tenure, despite being approved by the faculty and dean (the denial came from higher up). After sustained outcry over what many saw as his punishment for criticizing UC's backdoor deals with corporations, Professor Chapela's denial of tenure was reversed. His research focuses on alternative agriculture and is also critical of GM crops.

Another thing that would have helped would have been if UC had followed more of the recommendations of the independent study the Novartis deal commissioned by UCB. This 188-page document reviewed all aspects of the deal, and its first recommendation? "Avoid industry agreements that involve complete academic units or large groups of researchers."

Other bad signs about the process by which the deal is being struck are outlined by "Stop BP-Berkeley," a student campaign against the deal. This campaign is a good sign of life in the student body. We need to ask serious questions about how purse strings can strangle truly revolutionary thinking–the kind of thinking that upsets traditional power systems (like multinational oil and energy corporations).

Larisa Mann writes about technology, media and law for WireTap, studies jurisprudence and social policy at U.C. Berkeley and DJs under the name Ripley.