Apr. 24, 2007 – Fresh ties are budding between public universities and a leading oil company, seeding fears that industry is profiting from climate-change research at the expense of scientific integrity.
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Expanding a pattern of university and corporate linkages, the University of Californiaâ€“Berkeley has sparked debate on campus and off by entering a proposed $500 million arrangement with petrol giant BP. The 10-year initiative, which also involves Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will establish an institute that would host research by both university and industry personnel on "economically viable solutions to global energy challenges."
The Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) would be the largest of several climate-change research deals recently cut between industry and academia. Stanford University launched a similar program in 2002 with funding from ExxonMobil, General Electric and Toyota. Iowa State sealed a $22.5 million biofuels-development initiative with Conoco-Phillips this month.
Although industry-funded academic research is widespread, students, faculty and public-interest groups have challenged the EBI and similar partnerships as scientifically shortsighted "greenwashing" â€“ public image management aimed at papering over a long history of environmental crimes.
Ignacio Chapela, a Berkeley environmental-science professor and longtime critic of the universityâ€™s corporate collaborations, predicts the EBI will push the future of climate change further into the grasp of business interests. "Itâ€™s the same people," he told The NewStandard, "with the same ideas, with the same approaches â€“ simply giving a new techno-fix to problems that they created themselves."
Critics predict that a widely touted research initiative will push the future of climate change further into the grasp of business interests.
The primary mission put forth in the current EBI proposal is to enhance the biofuels industry â€“ specifically, to "ensure that EBI makes core discoveries in the field and secures corresponding patent positions." A few of the Instituteâ€™s initiatives would also probe new fossil-fuel extraction and processing technologies.
Under the proposal, a joint panel of academic and corporate representatives would govern the program and approve research proposals. Though the university could hold sole or joint patent rights on findings it helped produce, BP could negotiate exclusive licenses for the initial marketing of products, including reserving a time period to "evaluate the commercial potential of a given technology."
Maren Poitras, a student-organizer with the campus-based Stop-BP-Berkeley campaign, said the proposal has been crafted to "create the greatest profit for BP through control of the patents and technology of the â€˜alternativeâ€™ biofuel market."
The campaign is especially concerned about the planned deployment of up to fifty of BPâ€™s own "investigators" on campus to conduct research in "leased" space next to but separate from academic labs. BP personnel could also move freely between the corporate and university spaces, collaborating with academic researchers. And BP could claim intellectual-property rights on discoveries associated with its "proprietary" space, from which non-BP researchers would "be excluded entirely... in the performance of their university activities."
The deal has divided faculty between those eager for funds and those wishing to distance the university from industry interests.
Critics point out that while BP investigators could participate in and draw from Berkeley-based research, university scientists would not have reciprocal access to proprietary work.
"I think it would be fine if we equivalently had ecology research units embedded within corporate BP hierarchy," said Berkeley biology professor Robert Dudley, who sits on the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Academic Senate, the universityâ€™s faculty governing body. The proposed arrangement, he continued, "certainly gives the potential implication that the university is for sale to the highest bidder to do what they want."
Consumer advocates also demand more public input and transparency in the management of the EBI. John M. Simpson of the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said the agreement must ensure that for any useful discovery, "all companies and other research institutions should have equal access to it and be able to use it, because it's research done in a public university."
Berkeley spokesperson Robert Sanders told TNS the EBI deal would follow the publicly funded UC systemâ€™s principles on "agreements with external parties," including "a commitment to make the fruits of its research widely available."
When company and university personnel have collaborated under previous research partnerships, Sanders added, "itâ€™s a bonus for everybody that industry researchers are actually interacting with our researchers and students. It gives you a good grounding in the real world."
While corporations focus on promoting biofuels, skeptics question the fixation on producing energy through agriculture.
BP spokesperson Valerie Corr said, "We respect the right of students and faculty to freely voice their opinions." But she declined to comment in detail on specific provisions of the contract, as it is not yet finalized.
Berkeleyâ€™s alignment with the world of corporate-led science has divided the faculty between those eager for EBI funds and those wishing to distance the university from industry interests.
At an Academic Senate meeting last week, opponents of the EBI proposal pushed resolutions calling for stronger oversight, including the creation of an independent committee to monitor corporate research ties. Pro-EBI faculty voted down the initiative and passed far weaker oversight measures, stating that interference in research "based solely on the source of funds" would violate "academic freedom."
Some in the environmental and scientific communities view university-industry partnerships like the EBI with skepticism â€“ particularly since leading oil corporations until recently denied the environmental threat of global warming altogether. But they also say such deals may be necessary for addressing climate change on a wide scale.
"Itâ€™s a source of revenue for both [parties], and itâ€™s a source of a certain degree of prestige for industry," said Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Such alliances, he cautioned, should be judged by whether they ultimately succeed in "moving things from the bench in the lab into the marketplace, without creating conflicts of interest that impair the public mission of our universities."
Deron Lovaas, vehicles-campaign director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said oil companiesâ€™ current power over energy markets means society has no choice but to rely on corporations like BP to advance alternative fuel sources.
"Theyâ€™re the ones that ultimately will decide how big a role this is going to play in our energy future," Lovaas told TNS. "Thatâ€™s just the reality, in terms of who owns the infrastructure."
But Professor Chapela said there is a precedent for public financing of crucial research. If the industry were genuinely concerned about the environmental consequences of its actions, he said, it would simply hand funding to a public agency less burdened by corporate influence. BP could follow the model of the federally chartered National Science Foundation and "put this money into a fund for the legislature to actually distribute to the places where itâ€™s necessary."
Opponents of the partnership say BPâ€™s history of "greenwashing" its damaging practices â€“ from intense oil drilling in northern Alaska to last yearâ€™s massive spill at Prudhoe Bay â€“ should be reason enough to reject the deal. BPâ€™s track record has doubly outraged environmentalists, as it has overlapped with its "Beyond Petroleum" media campaign, touting supposedly eco-friendly corporate initiatives.
Some critics of oil corporations say that for all the hype surrounding university partnerships, the industry has shown little interest in seriously investing in research. The five major oil companies devoted less than 2 percent of total cash flows to research and development activities in 2004, according to an analysis commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute.
Merrill Goozner, director of the Integrity in Science Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said corporations with a financial stake in research could act as gatekeepers instead of stewards for the alternative-energy sector.
"These are oil companies; they get the vast majority of their revenue from oil," he said. "And as a result, theyâ€™re not all that interested in seeing their existing assets depleted unnecessarily by rapid shifts to alternative technologies. So if theyâ€™re the ones doing the investment and controlling intellectual property, you have to wonder, isnâ€™t that kind of a conflict of interest? How interested are they going to be in rapidly bringing that to market?"
Scientific and political crossroads
Even if the EBI initiative succeeds in promoting biofuels, skeptics question the fixation on producing energy through agriculture.
Some scientists argue that an explosion in biofuel crops like sugar and palm oil could upset the ecological balance in countries considered prime fodder for the industry, such as Brazil and Indonesia. Berkeley geoengineering professor Tad Patzek said intensive expansion of biofuel agriculture could lead to "the absolute destruction of the tropical ecosystems" and exacerbate global-warming problems.
Berkeley ecologist Chapela warned that the EBIâ€™s approach could "simply shove the problem over again to future generations and to places in the world where people cannot protect themselves." Rather than seeking a single, technocratic energy solution, he said, scientists should explore more-nuanced research paths: measures like building ecologically efficient urban infrastructures, or empowering individual communities to develop localized strategies for curbing gas emissions that lead to climate change.
"The only way we can get there," he said, "is if we have a place where diversity of research and opinion, and the freedom to research, [are] protected against things like BP."