Should UC Berkeley really reject $500M from Big Oil?

The University of California regents are deciding today whether University of California-Berkeley should accept a proposed massive $500 million deal with oil giant BP to do research in biofuel and other areas.

John Simpson, of the Foundation for TaxPayer and Consumer Rights, has written a critical piece for the Mercury News saying this would let BP green-wash its image, and poison the well of UC’s academic integrity. He points to the history of Exxon’s funding at Stanford University, the closed-door nature with which research projects are decided, conducted and licensed there, and suggests the research would inevitably be biased. Various environmentalists and student groups have protested the funding too.

We hope they’re considering the facts. Simpson fudges appears to fudge some. UC Berkeley spokesman Bob Sanders tells us that, unlike the Stanford deal, where the university doesn’t get a vote on decisions, the UC Berkeley version calls for academics to make up a majority of members on the committee deciding what research gets done. The decisions would be open.

Moreover, UC Berkeley professors and scientists would be doing crucially important research in alternative fuels. Here’s a statement that comes directly from the UC Berkeley proposal for the so-called Energy BioSciences Institute (more details here), which would manage the project.

The Institute will assemble teams of scientists that will seek total-system solutions to the production of biofuels that are cost effective and carbon neutral. The EBI will create the next generation of scientists deeply knowledgeable in all areas of bioenergy…(emphasis ours)

The Bay Area can easily become a hot bed for the alternative fuel sector, with applications transferred from its unsurpassed strength in biotech. That, combined with the general environmentally-conscious outlook held by many of its academics, makes Berkeley an excellent place for this research. There’s a need for funding for long-term biofuel research: VCs are busy investing mostly in ethanol projects which, while likely profitable in the short-term, are not the long-term answer — even they admit that.

In return for its funding, BP will have the first right to negotiate an exclusive license to the research. Here, we agree with Simpson. This is troubling — dangerously making the university’s a tool for one particular company. By gaining access to the university’s facilities and other resources, the project by default can’t help but crowd out other work, also a concern. Perhaps, more precautions can be taken to minimize this effect, with more facilities being built and managed separately — the university is still negotiating the contract and has time to act.

Perhaps we’re naive. But the way the deal is structured, this looks to have the potential of having an immensely positive impact on our environment long-term. Given that, we hope the critics can move beyond a knee-jerk reaction to reject the funding just because it comes from Big Oil.

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