UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate probably won’t have a vote about the planned half-billion-dollar alternative fuel program now being negotiated with BP—the company formerly known as British Petroleum.
“I doubt if we get a preview of the contract,” said William J. Drummond, the journalism professor who chairs the Academic Senate. “The terms will be proprietary information as far as the university and BP are concerned.”
“Clearly, they haven’t learned anything from Novartis,” said UC Berkeley Assistant Professor Ignacio Chapela, a leading critic of a controversial $25 million agreement between the Swiss agro-chemical giant and the university’s College of Natural Resource.
That five-year pact drew heavy criticism down on the university, along with charges of exploiting public scientists for corporate gain. A study commissioned by the university’s Academic senate faulted the university for its handling of the accord, while denying any serious breaches of conduct had occurred.
Chapela and other critics remain skeptical.
Meanwhile, more details of the research planned for the newly created Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) emerged Wednesday night at the Berkeley Planning Commission when members questioned LBNL Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) project manager Jim Krupnick.
The basic agenda—dubbed The Helios Project by LBNL after the Classical Greek sun god—consists of using microbes harvested from the guts of termites to digest plant matter and ferment it into ethanol.
“Helios will be the lab’s “centerpiece for the next 20 years,” Krupnick said, with the goal of “transforming sunlight into energy fuel for transportation, using the microbes to transform cellulose into the combustible alcohol.
During the next 5 to 10 years, scientists will engineer targeted grasses to grow faster and thicker while using less water and fertilizer than do the existing strains. Likewise, “scientists are taking the bacteria” from termites “and trying to make it more effective.” he said.
Inherent to the research is the tweaking of the genes of both plants and microbes to maximize productivity, a project BP has already begun. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are the subject of great scientific and political controversy.
“It’s the microorganisms that really freak me out,” said Chapela, whose research on the ability of artificial genes to spread into native varieties provoked a bitter a backlash, most from industry-funded scientists.
While Chapela’s research focused on the leaps of engineered genes over hundreds of miles into native strains of Mexican maize, similar transfers are being documented almost daily in research reports, litigation and news accounts from around the globe.
GMOs have also killed Monarch butterflies, contaminated domestic strains of soybeans and rice and are blamed for the death of sheep in India. Federal court rulings allow patent holders to sue farmers who grow accidentally contaminated crops.
Chapela was denied tenure and effectively fired despite a 35-1 vote of confidence by colleagues and a unanimous endorsement by the Academic Senate. That decision was endorsed by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, an enthusiastic supporter of the BP deal.
The scientist stood outside the meeting room where the Academic Senate committee met, handing out a statement that criticized the project to members as they filed into the meeting where Calvin Moore, the UCB math professor who serves as the university’s point person for the controversial contract, conducted the briefing.
“He (Moore) doesn’t represent the senate,” Drummond said. “The way I understand it, he was appointed by Vice Chancellor Beth Burnside.”
Moore also chairs the Senate’s Committee on Academic Planning and Resources Allocation.
A professor of molecular and cell biology, Burnside is the university’s Vice Chancellor-Research and works directly under Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Drummond said he had discussed the project with Burnside, but in none of the discussions, either with Moore of the Vice Chancellor, was the issue of GMOs raised.
During that session, Moore described a program where research would be conducted by two 25-member teams of scientists, one from BP and the others from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Krupnick told the Planning Commission that 24 of the 25 UCB/LBNL researcher hold dual appointments with the two affiliated taxpayer-funded institutions.
Drummond said a Chinese Wall would separate the two programs “to protect intellectual property.”
He said the two teams—each pledged not to share information with the other—would share two separated halves of the same building, prompting him to wonder what would happen when they sat down together in a dining room or the university’s faculty club.
“The social dynamics of great discoveries show that a lot of them were accidental, the result of chance meetings” where information was shared, Drummond said.
An LBNL spokesman said Wednesday that while some of the research will be conducted at the lab, most of the work will be done on the UCB campus itself. “All the laboratory space is not worked out yet,” she said.
Two other faculty members have joined Chapela in the critique of the proposed BP contract. Miguel Altieri and Claudia Carr, like Chapela professors at UCB’s College of Natural Resources, have also have begun writing and speaking out.
One of their major concern is the reliance of biofuel research on GMOs.
GMO is academic shorthand for a genetically modified organism—a biological species with genes tweaked by researchers to add or enhance a commercially desirable property. They fear that’s just where part of the research efforts may be headed.
BP is bankrolling the effort, spreading at least a half billion in cash around between the university, the affiliated Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and the University of Illinois, which would oversee production of test crops.
But the critics are also concerned about what they perceive as a lack of disclosure as university and state officials finalize details of one of the most lucrative contracts in American academic history.
Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez of Oakland’s Food First prepared a written statement published in the Feb. 6 edition of the Daily Planet, and Chapela and Carr have both sent letters of protest to Drummond.
Chapela said he also raised his concerns during a “very tense” meeting with faculty from his college.
“I used the word ‘prostitution’ in the meeting, and they said nothing,” he said. “Right now, I wish there were more details. It’s clear they’re pulling a fast one on everyone.”
Carr, who has protested the university’s handling of toxic contamination at the university’s Richmond Field Station and fought for tighter oversight of the cleanup there, expressed her concerns over the BP contract in her letter to Drummond.
She wrote that “the corporate subject of the proposed contract (BP) has an international reputation for environmental pollution, habitat devastation, local livelihood destruction and association with human rights abuses in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central Asia.”
Carr is a scholar of the role oil companies have played in African politics.