Public Comment

Commentary: UC and BP: A Step in the Wrong Direction

By Ignacio Chapela
Tuesday October 30, 2007

When our students look back in time, it will be easy for them to recognize this as a key moment in history. The signing of the “bioenergy” agreement between British Petroleum and the University of California, Berkeley for a reported $500 million will be clearly visible then, in the future, as a very big step indeed, a decisive step in the wrong direction. 

At Berkeley, the bare promise of money has dulled the capacity for critical thinking and transformed our public institution into a secretive society manipulated by special interest grouplets. I shudder to think about the further consequences that the arrival of this money, and the BP associates carrying it, will have on our campus. Before today, the chancellor would already speak of “we” to refer only to those on campus who identify with his ideas, while the others, like me, are already defined as “them.”  

Any disagreement continues to be suppressed, dismissed as simply part of the colorful character of our campus, and the signing of the contract will directly fund the mechanisms necessary to entrench this suppression. Nevertheless, biofuels are now known to have been the wrong answer to the global warming puzzle, and the approach to biofuels into which Berkeley will be locked by signing a contract with BP is also already known to bring with it serious problems for human and environmental health. This reality is clear for anyone with eyes to see, most certainly for those unfortunate enough to live under the immediate consequences of its pursuit in places like Argentina and Indonesia. Time, wind and water will bring those consequences back home to us. With information available today, the only reason one could have to go into the biofuel program of BP and its Berkeley associates is to make personal progress, financially for sure and maybe scholarly, from the very flare of public support created by one’s own propagandizing. 

Other core values have been sacrificed already in the process of bringing BP to our campus and the ink in the contract with BP will seal their fate. Our chancellor and all the promoters of this agreement have systematically avoided reckoning with the destructive force brought about by this contract against academic freedom and also against an unencumbered public voice for the university. By hijacking the Academic Senate through brute force and parliamentary sleight of hand last spring, BP boosters have minted a new definition of academic freedom as the freedom not to be questioned on their financial associations, no matter how damaging for the university or the public. In other times this Orwellian definition would have been rejected as a grab for unaccountable profiteering, and so it shall be recognized in the future.  

But today any question relating to conflict of interest is swept under the cover of this new definition, making it possible for BP associates to carry out research, provide guidance in public policy, teach and train from the halls of our university while standing to gain most of their personal wealth from the consequences of their very research, teaching, and public opinion. The promotion of diversity and true academic freedom and the avoidance of conflict of interest are the most delicate values of our profession because once we lose them it becomes practically impossible even to see that we have: as we open our doors to BP employees and their associates, as we use the money that they bring to recruit professors and students who will by definition agree with the New Order for the university, a flood of acquiescence will drown out any memory of what a truly open and diverse campus could have achieved. In this process, society as a whole may gain a few upward ticks in the stock markets but it certainly loses irretrievably the values sown into the university as seeds for the future over many generations. 

This tragic moment for the public university and for biology represents, paradoxically, the natural but unfortunate culmination of Dan Koshland’s dream, a dream that became by deed of Koshland’s fortune Berkeley’s and the nation’s. Koshland can be credited more than any single individual for his obstinate dedication to transform the discipline of biology into what he defined as Big Science, just as it had been done by others for the field of physics that he so admired. In this effort, he conceived of his home, Berkeley, as the ideal place to bring that dream to reality. While this goal may have looked as desirable back in the ’80s, by the dawn of the 21st century it is clear that it represents the sacrifice of a whole discipline, biology, in the hands of a small, monopolistic political group which has successfully captured the name of science for their own visions, including the vision of Big Money. Whether Professor Koshland was able to see the tragedy in the natural consequences of his dream will remain an interesting question for his biographers. But now without Koshland his dream forges ahead by bringing the biggest players and profiteers in the geopolitical arena to dictate what we, and by consequence, society, should do with the Big Science that we have wrought. 

Koshland was wrong, however, in modelling biology after physics, and the jury is in on that judgement. While physics was able to speed from nuclear particle theory to nuclear war in the briefest three decades, biology continues to resist, half a century and many billions of dollars later, the proposals of physicists and chemical engineers. The New Biology going into the BP era at Berkeley may have new names and new faces, but it has not been able to change the fundamentals of living systems, most poignantly those in the open, public space: the loss of biological and cultural diversity, the spread of epidemics and invasive species, the emergence of new diseases for humans and their companion domesticates, all these problems continue not only unabated, but racing at increased pace.  

The interventions by our BP-Berkeleyans have already shown what a staggering power they can have in furthering, not solving, all these problems. Physics as an abstraction provides necessary but not sufficient understanding to deal in real life with living individuals, species or ecosystems, and those living systems will continue to resist from their complex biological reality. Part of that biology-in-resistance shows up at Berkeley every year in the form of faculty, students and many others who want to sustain the idea that we can do much better than proposing to steer the world through engineers and lawyers. A lobby of BP boosters, half-a-billion-dollars louder, will most likely overlook to our peril the power of resistance of those living systems which they wish would fade away. But the public would do well to remember, on the day that the contract is signed in their name, that it is from that very suppressed biology that they can expect any real answers to the questions conveniently shelved away for the BP press conference. 


Ignacio Chaplea is a professor of ecosystems sciences at UC Berkeley.