Science For Sale at UC Berkeley -- Also Known As 'UCBP'

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The San Francisco Chronicle

Science For Sale at UC Berkeley -- Also Known As 'UCBP'

by
Al Meyerhoff

BP, which likes to tout itself as "Beyond Petroleum," is the oil company that knows how to be a good corporate citizen.

Never mind the pesky oil spill in Alaska last year that shut down the pipeline. Forget about those human rights violations in Colombia. Ignore that $183 million air pollution lawsuit just filed by the California Air Resources Board. We must have this "green" company all wrong.

What else could explain the apparent willingness of a fine public institution like UC Berkeley to be on the verge of entering into a "partnership" with the petro-giant -- accepting $500 million to fund an Energy Biosciences Institute? Maybe this gift will get us off foreign oil. Maybe BP's largess is without strings. Maybe pigs have wings.

Actually, if approved, this deal is the most egregious example of "science for sale" at most American universities. Through such arrangements, corporations are able to leverage far greater amounts of public funds to accomplish their commercial research agenda. In a very real sense, the university becomes the lab of the company. Taxpayer-funded scientists (and most importantly graduate students) do their bidding, and the results receive the university's Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Don't shed too many tears for those UC scientists however. If history is any guide, they will fare very well, thank you -- with lucrative "consulting" contracts, patent royalties or by later serving BP as well-paid "independent" expert witnesses. As a UC Davis professor once put it during the previous biotechnology "revolution," "It's like the invasion of the body snatchers. You take one look in their eyes and realize they are gone."

This is not a new debate. The forces supporting academic freedom and university independence have been losing this battle for decades.

In the 1980s, the genetic engineering explosion brought with it a flood of "faculty entrepreneurs." Scientists in UC labs made breakthroughs -- then formed their own companies. A 1982 Natural Resources Defense Council complaint triggered a Fair Political Practices Commission investigation over alleged misuse of public funds. There were congressional hearings (the House subcommittee was chaired by then-Rep. Al Gore).

A "summit meeting" was held by Harvard, UC, MIT, Stanford and Cal Tech presidents -- in secret, of course -- at Pajaro Dunes (Monterey County). That gathering produced only platitudes. But state regulations were eventually promulgated requiring UC scientists to publicly disclose their financial stake in government-funded research. Conflicts of interest were disallowed.

Yet these and other reforms have done little to stem the tide of corporate money into universities -- right when government funds have been cut back. Corporate gifts and grants have more than doubled over the past two decades. In 2001, the American Council on Education and the National Alliance of Business jointly released a two-year study urging closer ties between universities and private corporations.

Conflicts of interest? What conflicts of interest? Ignored was the argument that, as journalist Jennifer Washburn notes in her book "University Inc.," such deals "undermine the foundation of public trust on which all universities depend." Do they? The public seems asleep at the switch.

The BP deal takes this "deal with the devil" one step further. In a break from the past, universities now usually at least hold onto the intellectual property rights to publicly funded research. And they license their results to more than one company. Not this time. BP will actually co-own, and may even get exclusive rights to, licenses underwritten by your tax dollar. BP then will likely charge you monopoly prices for products developed with your nickel.

But why shouldn't they?

After all, 50 BP scientists will be working right there on campus.

We will have a new UCBP.

Wonder what this means for the football team? Go Bears!


Los Angeles attorney Al Meyerhoff in the 1970s sued the University of California on behalf of family farmers and farmworkers for developing machines like the gamma-ray lettuce harvester. He won. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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