Does it Matter if BP Sleeps With UC Berkeley and Californians Fund Their Hotel Room?

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Nature.com, website of the British science journal Nature, reports on growing concerns about oil-giant BP’s $50-million energy research partnership with the University of California Berkeley. On February 1, BP announced it will fund a decade of alternative-energy research by Berkeley and its partners, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign —fueling worries about the affair.

Some fear that the pact — for which final details are still being worked out — could be a repeat of a controversial $25-million contract that the university entered into in 1998 with the biotech giant Novartis. That deal expired in 2003, amid criticism that the academic freedom of some university researchers had been compromised.

It’s not uncommon for industry to fund academic research. It is unusual for funders to shack up with researchers—a cozy arrangement California’s governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes to promote by asking the state for $40 million in bonds to pay for the Energy Biosciences Institute, where BP-funded researchers would work.

The building would house university professors and students, along with perhaps 50 industry scientists. Industry funds a lot of research on public and private university campuses, and it’s fairly common for companies to have labs located near institutes where industry and academic researchers work together — as Intel and Yahoo do at Berkeley, for example. But it’s rare for industry to house its scientists in public buildings on state university property.

The ménage-a-trois between government, industry and academia disturbs Berkeley entomologist Miguel Altieri, who fears the deal is another step in the

“rapid, unchecked and unprecedented global corporate alignment of the world’s largest agribusiness, biotech, petroleum and automotive industries”. He fears that for “a relatively small investment”, BP can benefit from public resources and cash in on inventions developed with taxpayers’ money.

More controversial still is the bidding non-war that led to Berkeley’s win, says Nature.

The BP competition occurred alongside a volatile political campaign in California to create a $4-billion public research programme into alternative energy sources, funded via a severance tax on oil firms. Energy companies spent $108 million on advertisements against the measure, Proposition 87, on last November’s ballot. Schwarzenegger refused to back Proposition 87, and critics are upset that, instead, he is supporting a deal that they see as enabling one of those energy companies to benefit from public facilities. Schwarzenegger argues that the BP deal fits California’s plans for developing cleaner energy in an economical manner.

The losing bidders were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, San Diego; Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, UK. Imperial’s rector Richard Sykes notes that his university had costed its bid so no public funds would be used. He says BP told Imperial that its bid wasn’t economical. “We thought that was interesting,” he comments.

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