The firestorm of controversy over the $500 million pact tying UC Berkeley to one of the world biggest and most criticized oil giants intensified this week, with a teach-in, a demonstration, a pointed exchange between students and a key administrator and at least one arrest.
The central issue is the role BP—the company formerly known as British Petroleum—will play on the campus of one of the nation’s premier public research universities. At the heart of the deal is a plan to genetically engineer grass and microbes to produce ethanol.
According to a UC Berkeley historian Monday night, BP’s half-billion-dollar deal is nothing less than massive greenwashing by a corrupt corporation—supported by a governor eager “to keep his eight Hummers running on alcohol.”
Iain Boal, professor of social and environmental history in the geography department, joined three other professors, an award-winning science writer and a coalition of students for the first teach-in targeting the controversial plan revealed in a press conference last month.
The BP project has garnered an impressive collection of political endorsements, ranging from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates to Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama—whose own state of Illinois is another beneficiary of the project.
But opposition is growing as well, with the student activists staging two major events this week—Monday night’s teach-in and a protest Thursday afternoon outside California Hall, the seat of campus administration and the offices of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
Students also spoke up during a closed meeting Wednesday noon with Paul Ludden, dean of the College of Natural Resources, according to two participants.
Then, at 1 p.m. Thursday, demonstrators gathered outside California Hall to stage a bit of guerilla theater, and two of them, clad in white lab coats emblazoned with the BP logo, each dumped a yard weed sprayer tank of dark liquid outside the main entrance.
Campus police, present in numbers and armed with video cameras as well as more traditional hardware, took the pair into custody, and hauled at least one, Ali Tonack, off to the Berkeley city lockup.
A series of speakers, including professors Miguel Altieri, Ignacio Chapela and Gray Brechin, joined students in denouncing the agreement. As a final gesture to demonstrate the harmlessness of the liquid, Chapela pushed through police, dipped his finger in the substance, tasted it and pronounced it be molasses.
“It’s organic, too,” called out one of the students.
Among those who spoke was Hillary Lehr, an undergraduate in the Conservation and Resource Studies program at the College of Natural Resources (CNR).
The day before, she had confronted Dean Paul Ludden moments after he began his presentation to a group of students and faculty, asking the 50 or so present for a show of hands [check] on whether they had serious questions about the agreement.
“An overwhelming majority did,” said the witness, a critic of the project. “It was wonderful. Most were worried, and they asked questions.”
When Ludden told faculty members they’d have ample opportunity to become involved, “he was immediately challenged by” ecosystem science Professor Andrew Paul Gutierrez, who said the agreement threatened academic freedom.
Ludden responded that “any researcher can do anything he wants” at the university.
When students protested the commercialization of research, Professor David Winickoff, a faculty member who helped Ludden draft the proposal, said they should ask legislators to revise the Bayh-Dole Act, federal legislation which gives universities the right to patent research and work with corporations to profit from its exploitation.
“I don’t think it went the way they expected,” said the witness.
“Their answers were very inadequate,” said Maren Poitras, one of the organizers of Monday night’s teach-in. “It became very clear that they weren’t going to change the process.”
“I asked the dean if he took the Novartis guidelines into account. He said no, the university had not adopted them.”
Those guidelines were drafted by researchers at Michigan State University, who were contracted to examine the university’s controversial agreement with Novartis, a Swiss agro-pharmaceutical corporation which entered into an agreement with the CNR to fund $25 million in research.
That deal sparked a national controversy over the increasing role played by corporations in modern universities, and drew the attention of science writer Jennifer Washburn. An article on Novartis she wrote for The Atlantic magazine was expanded into her book, University, Inc., She was one of the speakers at Monday’s teach-in.
“It’s really critical that you get hold of the agreement,” she told the students who gathered into the auditorium at Morgan Hall. “I called the university to try to obtain a copy and I was denied access to anything.”
Kamal Kapadia, a CNR graduate student, did get a copy, reported in some detail at the teach-in. The San Francisco Chronicle got a look at one and published excerpts Tuesday.
Much of the research will be aimed at creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a highly controversial research agenda critics fear will create significant unintended consequences, especially in lesser developed countries where they fear already threatened rain forest will be destroyed to clear ground for planting crops to fuel American cars.
At Monday’s teach-in, Boal said oil companies are increasingly setting research agendas for universities around the world, with the $100 million 2003 ExxonMobil accord with Stanford serving as an increasingly typical example.
The 10-year BP agreement with Berkeley he described as part of a “massive greenwashing campaign” funded by a minuscule fraction of the fraction of corporate profits, which amounted to more than $22 billion in 2006.
The same firm has shown a ruthless hand in dealing with critics, he said, hiring a former Central Intelligence Agency to break into the home of one critic and tap his phone, while another was targeted with a fabricated file offering specious evidence of an adulterous affair that never happened.
“How could a major oil company behave differently?” he asked, because of the fiduciary responsibility of directors to generate the highest possible profits for investors.
Under the corporate regime, he said, “science has become capitalism’s way of knowing the world.”
Washburn told students that lack of public disclosure of corporate/academic agreements has become all too common at a time when corporate funds are a steadily growing part of university research budgets.
Even though federal coffers remain the largest source of university research dollars, the corporate moneys that accounted for about 7 percent of university research funds in 2000 influenced between 20 and 25 percent of research projects because of matching fund and cost-sharing agreements.
“I am not opposed to corporate/academic relationships,” Washburn said. “They have been an integral part of the advance of science and knowledge ... The problem is the way the relationships are organized and structured,” jeopardizing the university’s core missions of education an independence.
Miguel Altieri, a professor of agroecology at CNR and an advocate of sustainable agriculture, said the corporatization of research has virtually ended research on non-chemical means of pest control, once a strong emphasis on the Berkeley campus. “The discipline has disappeared,” he said.
By focusing research in fields where corporations can hope to harvest patents, other field of science vanish, along with expertise.
Already, patented GMO crops occupy between 80 million and 100 million hectares (one hectare is 2.47 acres), most farmed in vast tracts beyond the scale of traditional farming techniques because farmers who own less than 500 acres simply can’t afford the essential machinery.
Reliance on so-called biofuels doesn’t make sense, Altieri charged, and will increase energy consumption in fuel production and raise carbon dioxide emissions.
He criticized BP in particular for working with paramilitary groups in Colombia who have kidnapped and murdered critics of the oil company.
“Will we feel satisfied when filling our cars with a mixture containing six percent of biofuels coming from the Amazon, where peasants and indigenous people were violently displaced, leaving thousands without food security?” he asked.
Altieri described what he call “the green fuel mafia,” a consortium of oil, biotech and agricultural businesses allied with car manufacturers and environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Federation, Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy.
Civil and environmental engineering Professor Tad W. Patzek is one of the university’s most outspoken critics of biofuels, and worked for Shell Oil before joining the Berkeley faculty.
“What troubles me is this alignment of public research with corporation goals,” he said, resulting in “a public institution now completely aligned with corporate interests.”
Patzek’s research has yielded evidence which he says proves that biofuels like ethanol are not viable because, when all costs are added up, including the loss of natural resources diverted to production, only red ink results.
The notion that research on ethanol will solve an energy crisis that stems in large part from over-consumption is dangerous, “and our complicity in this delusion is dangerous and runs against my feelings about the ethics of scientists at a public institution,” he said.
While research has shown the productivity of techniques that don’t require GMOs, pesticides and major applications of fertilizer and irrigation water, that’s not the work that draws grants.
“I personally know the chief scientist at BP and I know how things work there,” Patzek said, adding that he was “quite opposed” to the agreement “because they don’t know what they want,” while the corporation itself “wants an increases in the value of their stock by using a public institution” to make it possible.
“We are a public institution in dire straits in many, many ways. We are here, hat in hand, begging for any donations from any source.”
“The university has been penetrated and transformed from the inside,” said CNR Professor Ignacio Chapela, who was denied tenure and released by the university following his outspoken criticism of the Novartis agreement.
Chapela told teach-in participants that the university had seen the loss of a once-strong tradition of faculty governance in Berkeley in the face of secret corporate agreements approved by trustees acting for the public. “We are losing the trust of the people,” he said, and the people are losing their trust in science.