Activists push safeguards to protect UC Berkeley in research deal with BP

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Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — A consumer advocacy group urged the UC Board of Regents on Wednesday to ensure that BP does not benefit inappropriately from its $500-million research grant to UC Berkeley by obtaining exclusive rights to scientific discoveries.

The Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights also called on the regents to prohibit the British oil company from conducting secret research at the public university and from using UC’s name in marketing campaigns without the regents’ approval.

“This is such a big deal that it can set the tone and dominate the nature of research at UC,” said John Simpson, an advocate for the foundation. “The regents must act to defend the academic integrity of one of the nation’s premier public institutions.”

The University of California and BP announced in January that they would form a joint energy research institute on the UC Berkeley campus to develop sustainable sources of energy and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Much of the initial effort of the new Energy Biosciences Institute, however, will be to develop biofuels from plants and improve the extraction of petroleum from existing reserves.

Under the agreement, BP will have the right to base up to 50 researchers on the campus and will have exclusive control over some of the institute’s expected findings. The details of the relationship are still being finalized.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a key proponent of the joint venture, said the agreement is no different from 95 other UC research agreements except for the huge amount of money involved.

He argued that, as a public institution, UC Berkeley has a responsibility to tackle the planet’s pressing environmental and energy problems and that working closing with a company like BP offers the best way to find solutions.

“Global warming and energy self-sufficiency are profound problems, and it’s our obligation as a public institution to address them,” he said. “We want this partnership with BP because they know what’s needed in the marketplace.”

UC officials say that the agreement with the oil giant, formerly known as British Petroleum, will not violate UC procedures and that BP‘s right to proprietary research is appropriate given the magnitude of its donation.

“We think we have worked out an optimal way to structure that partnership,” Birgeneau said.

Simpson, however, said UC should adopt additional safeguards to protect its reputation for academic integrity.

Speaking briefly to the regents during its public comment period, he urged the board to ensure that UC, not BP, controls the direction and results of the research and that any patented discoveries are licensed on a nonexclusive basis. “Secret proprietary research” should be prohibited, he said.

To prevent BP from using the research center to recast itself as a “green” company, Simpson also urged the regents to take responsibility for approving any promotion of the institute by the company.

“Simply put,” Simpson said, “the regents must make it clear that they won’t let Berkeley become UCBP.”
Contact the author at [email protected].

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