Gulf of Mexico oil spill fuels controversy over BP-funded energy research at UC Berkeley
BERKELEY, Calif. – BP's catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is fueling opposition to the University of California, Berkeley's research partnership with the British company, with activists and professors on the famously liberal campus calling for a severing of ties.
The oil giant gave UC Berkeley a $500 million grant in 2007 to create the Energy Biosciences Institute, which works to develop new sources of plant-based fuel. The 10-year deal, believed to be the largest-ever corporate sponsorship of university research, has outraged many students and professors who worry the global oil company will exert too much influence over academic research and damage the university's reputation.
Now, as the spill devastates the Gulf Coast, some local activists and faculty members say it's time to end the partnership.
"Our bottom line is the public good, and their bottom line is profit," said Ignacio Chapela, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental science. "There comes a point where those positions are irreconcilable, and I think that point is now."
On Friday, a group of activists staged an anti-BP demonstration next to the construction site where the university is building a new facility to house the research institute. They poured chocolate syrup on the sidewalk — to represent the oil spill — and held signs the read "Berkeley Petroleum" and "Do you want BP Pollution in Berkeley?"
"Now that we can see what BP is responsible for in the Gulf, we demand that the contract between UC and BP be re-looked at," activist Stephanie Tang said, speaking to onlookers through a megaphone.
But UC Berkeley officials say the institute has nothing to do with the Gulf spill, and the university has no plans to end its research partnership with BP.
"The horrible events in the Gulf should only strengthen our commitment to find alternatives to fossil fuels," said Graham Fleming, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor of research. "Why would anyone's interest be served by stopping this research?"
BP officials also say the company remains committed to funding the Berkeley-based research institute, as well as its other alternative energy research programs.
"The spill hasn't changed our commitment to investing in biofuels and wind and solar development," said BP spokesman Tom Mueller.
The BP-Berkeley partnership has stirred debate about corporate funding of academic research at a time when UC is grappling with deep cuts in state funding that have led to faculty furloughs, course cutbacks and steep tuition hikes.
Critics say corporate money steers university resources toward certain types of research, and widens the financial disparity between faculty members in science and engineering and those in the humanities and social sciences.
"It creates an apartheid within the university between the haves and have-nots," said Miguel Altieri, a UC Berkeley entomology professor who is concerned about the environmental impact of biofuels. He recently wrote a newspaper article urging UC Berkeley officials to terminate the research partnership.
UC Berkeley receives research grants from other corporations, mostly in the technology sector, but none are as big as the BP grant.
Partnering with private industry helps university researchers get their ideas and discoveries out of the laboratory and into the real world, said UC's Fleming.
The Energy Biosciences Institute funds nearly 70 projects involving about 350 researchers at UC Berkeley and its two partner institutions — Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The academic researchers determine what research to pursue, their participation is completely voluntary and their home institutions own the patents on their discoveries, university officials said.
"The corporate influence is really minimal when you look at how it's managed from day to day," said Susan Jenkins, the institute's assistant director. "We accepted a grant to work on bioenergy and that's what we're doing."