|Showdown over UC-BP pact nearing / Science for sale (19/4/2007)|
1.Faculty Senate Nears Showdown Over UC-BP Pact
EXTRACT: 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... 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."
1.Faculty Senate Nears Showdown Over UC-BP Pact
UC Berkeley faculty will cast their ballots Thursday on competing resolutions triggered by the largest corporate grant in the history of the American university.
Questions about the nature of academic freedom, faculty hiring, the increasing reliance on corporate funds and the secrecy shrouding patent-directed research will culminate in an unusual two-hour special session that begins at 1 p.m. in Booth Auditorium at Boalt Hall.
The key issue is whether or not to create a blue-ribbon committee to oversee the half-billion-dollar research program that BP pl.c.-previously British Petroleum-is now negotiating with university administrators.
On April 5, student activists in StopBP-Berkeley.org forced university officials to release the previously secret appendices to the winning proposal that led the giant oil firm to pick UCB as the recipient of a complex 10-year funding package.
Release of the documents sparked a sharp April 12 letter from John M. Simpson of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
Simpson charged that some of the scientists listed as participants were opponents of the deal and "were shocked to discover that their names and resumes were included," and accused Birgeneau of a "fundamental mischaracterization" in describing the grant process as open.
In an earlier letter to the foundation, Birgeneau had said the proposal "was developed in an open, not a secretive way," citing announcement of the proposals formulation in emails to all faculty before it was drafted as well as notification of the academic senate.
Included in the recently released appendix were two pie charts, the first listing startup companies that had arisen from UC Berkeley by their departments of origin, and the second listing the startups by their commercial sectors.
The largest two sectors of origin were the Departments of Molecular and Cell Biology with 21 percent of the startups and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with 20 percent, followed by Chemistry with 15 percent and Bioengineering with 14 percent.
Collectively, the departments which have given rise to academic entrepreneurialism were heavily over-represented among signatories backing the petition against the special oversight committee, while departments absent from the robes-to-riches pie charts were heavily represented in petitions calling for oversight.
The Energy Biosciences Institute that BP's funds will endow will conduct both open research and two parallel tracks of proprietary research, one conducted exclusively by BP scientists and aimed at creating patents that will belong solely to the company and a second, joint track conducted jointly by BP and university researchers that will lead to patents on which the company will have the right of first refusal and share royalties with the university.
A third track, consisting of research conducted only by university scientists, will yield patents solely to the school.
The newly released appendices show that university officials sought and won extensive support from local business associations, as well from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who addressed a Nov. 20, 2006 letter to Lord John Browne, BP's CEO.
Feinstein wrote to "wholeheartedly support" the two proposals presented by UC campuses (UC San Diego had also fielded a proposal of its own). "BP is to be commended for creating a center that will focus on developing new more efficient biofuels as a way to combat climate change," she wrote.
Two joint endorsement letters to BP came from corporate organizationa, one from regional business and economic development alliances and the other from BayBio, an interest group of regional biotechnology firms.
"There is no other region in the world," the first declared, "that matches the Bay Area's depth and breadth of research excellence, entrepreneurial vigor, and technological advancement."
The 15 signatories to that first letter included leading officials of the San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Rosa chambers of commerce, as well as the Solano Economic Development Council, the Contra Costa Council, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Bay Area Council, the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, the San Francisco Center for Economic Development, the Tri-Valley Business Council, the Bay Area Economic Forum and the Napa Valley Economic Development Council.
The BayBio letter pledged the support of "investors, entrepreneurs and industry executives dedicated to bringing clean energy technologies to the marketplace."
One of the 32 signatories to the BayBio letter was Neal Gutterson, president and CEO of Mendel Technology. Geneticist Chris Somerville, whose controversial hire by UCB Chancellor Robert Birgeneau is one of the reasons critics sought Thursday's academic senate meeting, chairs the firm's board of directors and is its leading scientist.
Somerville is expected to play a leading role in EBI, as is LBNL/UCB academic entrepreneur Jay Keasling, a founder of Amyris Biotechnology-the firm that hired BPs American fuels operations president John G. Melo while the university was bidding for the half-billion-dollar grant.
Another, separate letter, from Cisco Systems Vice President Patrick Finn, promised the computer network firms support for the EBI and its programs.
The appendix also included "Five Universities You Can Do Business With," a February 2006 article from Inc. Magazine. Author Carl Schramm described five schools "that constitute the elite of the technology transfer world. They are Berkeley, Caltech, Stanford, MIT, and Wisconsin."
Half of the appendices consists of resumes, both detailed and brief, of scientists who have signed on to participate in the research and descriptions of the labs where work will be conducted until a special-purpose facility can be built, partly with the help of $40 million in state funds promised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The document is now available at the EBI's web site at www.ebiweb.org/proposal.htm.
Critics fear that accepting a grant of unprecedented scale from Big Oil without special oversight could lead to a wide range of consequences, and contend that special oversight is needed to weigh the agreements impacts both with the campus and outside.
Some, like agricultural specialists Miguel Altieri, Ignacio Chapela and Andrew Paul Gutierrez, say they fear that production of crops for conversion to fuel-the cornerstone of the BP-funded projectcould wreak severe consequences in lesser-developed countries, including replacement of food crops with plants grown to fuel the cars of U.S. motorists.
Chapela is also a leading critic of the handling of genetically modified organisms (GMO), including the crops with tweaked genes that form one of the central elements in the BPI proposal. His research found genes from GMO corn invading the genomes of native species deep in Mexico, a country that bans import of GMOs.
Somerville, the recently hired UCB/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory geneticist, has ridiculed GMO fears, contending that the worst result that's ever happened "has been a mild rash."
Other concerns raised by critics have included the broader questions involving the increasing reliance of public universities on corporate funding, and its impacts on the shaping of the curriculum, the availability of funds for research programs, the relative pay of faculty across departments and the impacts on students.
The university's Graduate Assembly has passed a resolution calling for the same type of oversight that faculty critics seek, and is asking for two seats on the panel as well as independent funding for a research program to examine the "ethical, geopolitical and environmental impacts of biofuels.
2.Science for sale at UC Berkeley -- also known as 'UCBP'
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 [email protected]
This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle