UC, Inc.

The price of academic integrity

Jennifer Washburn lays out the case against the British Petroleum/UC,Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of Illinois-Urbana deal: $500 million from BP to set up an Energy Biosciences Institute to do BP-directed science for BP profits, using public facilities and publicly paid university sciences.

"Big Oil buys Berkeley" lays out a completely compelling case against the deal. The one thing I thought she missed was consideration of how much $500 million in industry funds could suppress science tending to suggest that biofuels are not the silver bullet for our energy woes.

She touches on another theme, which I would have liked to see her explore further. I guess I'll have to buy her book, University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

This is shameful. The core mission of Berkeley is education, open knowledge exchange and objective research, not making money or furthering the interests of a private firm. In the last two decades, however, Cal and other universities — increasingly desperate for research dollars — have signed agreements that fail to protect their essential independence, allowing corporations excessive control over their research.

I agree it is a shameful, probably dangerous corruption of academic independence and the public mission of UC. It is as ethically indefensible as the salaries UC administrators get "so that they will be competitive with private industry standards." I also believe it will have the effect of suppressing ethical concerns at Cal, worsening an already blighted history in that area.

But, is the economic concern accurate? Are universities "increasingly desperate for research dollars"? And, if so, why? I am sure that the answer to that question is extremely complicated, involving the privatization of many formerly government functions, particularly in institutions like the Pentagon and the Department of Agriculture. Bear in mind that UC is a land grant university, whose Cooperative Extension has been working at the county level in California agriculture for many decades, with varied results depending in recent years on what agribusiness lobby is dominating the USDA at the moment.

Public funds, at least in California, account for roughly 25-percent of the UC operating budget. I don't know what the percentage is in New Mexico, where the UC/Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of the state's top employers. While it is safe to say that without that 25 percent, a great many things at UC could not happen. On the other hand, this percentage, shrinking through the years, is not in the commanding position it once was to enforce, economically, the mission of the university -- "education, open knowledge exchange and objective research." State funding of UC has suffered erosion, and is now seen as "local matching funds" somewhat similar to a local sweetener to attract federal highway funds for road projects. UC is funded, overwhelmingly, by private corporations and the federal government (the latter being in some instances pretty much like the former).

Passage in 1980 of the Bayh-Dole Act didn't help. This law enabled universities to

Public confidence in the objectivity of research may be eroded

Academia's relationship with private industry changed in the United States when Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980.1 This law enabled universities to patent their discoveries and license them to private corporations. This policy fostered collaboration between academia and industry, which created jobs and products of immediate commercial value. But the delicate balance between academic and corporate expectations has swung too far toward private profit at the expense of public trust. Universities are threatened by a growing public concern that industry funding distorts research and undermines its traditions of objectivity, independence, and free exchange of ideas. -- The unhealthy alliance between academia and corporate America

--Spyros Andreopoulos, Director emeritus, Western Journal Med. 2001 October; 175(4): 225–226.

Furthermore, the process is well-established and champions of academic independence are not found either on the UC Regents or among UC administrators, who together comprise a committee that must rank among the premier grant whores in the world.

But, what if the public has doubts about ethanol and the genetic engineering that this oil company-funded scientific institute will be doing? How can the public compete against $500 million? What state legislator, during committee meetings on the UC budget (that little 25-percent matching fund) is going to stand up against a half a billion bucks? One can almost hear the sneer of UC lobbyists.

In short, the state's "public research university" has been hijacked by an oil company in what top UC officials are calling another win-win, public-private partnership. This is certainly not the first time this has happened -- consider the land boondoggle of UC Merced as a recent example, and UCM's proposed University Community as another. Novartis paid a mere $25 million to Cal for genetic research a few years ago. Conflict took place, involving Cal environmental scientist, Ignacio Chapela, indigenous cultivars of corn in Oaxaca, GMO gene drift, Nature Magazine and the awesome flak machine of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Novartis chose to duck the heat and leave town. Chapela eventually got his tenure, blocked until he brought a lawsuit, by UC administration.

Let us, for a moment, consider another way of framing the issue, different from the win-win, public-private flak. We do this with apologies to another Cal professor, George Lakoff, one of the nation's leading sophists, who appears to be trying to patent the breath-takingly new idea of teaching liberals rhetoric.

UC depends on prestige for its grants. A one-tune pony, it must constantly employ legions of flaks to sing its song: "UC is the greatest public research university in the universe." In fact, it makes much more sense, producing a much richer sense of reality, to consider UC a public front for corporate and federal government research (much of which is guided by corporate lobbies).

What happens if you take the "public" out of the win-win, private partnership between UC and the oil company? If the public, with its mere 25-percent ante on the table, is unable to guide UC research to something of importance to the public, why not remove the ante and take its money off the table? UC isn't committed to educating the youth of California. UC is about UC prestige in some of the most lethal science and technology known to man. Arnold the Hun and the Legislature remain in the game of matching funds strictly to be seen as Big Shots in the glowing reflection of UC "public" research, which isn't public and may not even be research so much as it is flak-money spent to suppress science suggesting that the corporate sponsor du jour is researching things of actual danger to the public.

Badlands Journal

Los Angeles Times
Big oil buys Berkeley...Jennifer Washburn

ON FEB.1, the oil giant BP announced that it had chosen UC Berkeley, in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to lead the largest academic-industrial research alliance in U.S. history. If the deal is approved, BP will give $500 million over 10 years to fund a new multidisciplinary Energy Biosciences Institute devoted principally to biofuels research. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, UC administrators and BP executives immediately proclaimed the alliance — which is not yet a done deal — a victory for higher education and for the environment. But here's another way to see it. For a mere $50 million a year, an oil company worth $250 billion would buy a chunk of America's premier public research institutions, all but turning them into its own profit-making subsidiary. This is shameful. The core mission of Berkeley is education, open knowledge exchange and objective research, not making money or furthering the interests of a private firm. In the last two decades, however, Cal and other universities — increasingly desperate for research dollars — have signed agreements that fail to protect their essential independence, allowing corporations excessive control over their research. Most corporations sponsor university research one study and one lab at a time. With the Energy Biosciences Institute, BP would exert influence over an entire academic research center (spanning 25 labs at its three public partners), bankrolling and setting the agenda for projects that cut across many departments. What's more, BP would set up shop on campus:... BP also would set up private labs on these campuses, where all the research would be proprietary and confidential. The fine print of the plan, which UC made public only after it was leaked, doesn't create much confidence. Californians need to know that their public university is dedicated to pursuing the best science, not just science that generates profits for BP. Five hundred million dollars is a nice chunk of change, but does any amount of money justify "reinventing" UC Berkeley's academic integrity?