Revolution #83 Online Edition
BP Deal at UC Berkeley: Corporate Research, Profits and Global Warming
On February 1, Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, announced an agreement between BP (formerly British Petroleum) and the University of California at Berkeley to establish an Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) on the Berkeley campus. Under the agreement BP will provide the university with $500 million over 10 years. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this is “by far the largest alliance ever between industry and academia.”
Many professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and members of the community are outraged by the deal, which is being rammed through without consultation with the faculty or public.
On March 1, students opposing EBI demonstrated outside the Chancellor’s office on the Berkeley campus. Two students were arrested for pouring what appeared to be oil on the steps of the building. The substance turned out to be organically grown molasses that the demonstrators offered to clean up.
At a March 8 meeting of the Academic Senate, which represents the faculty, speaker after speaker denounced the agreement and what it would mean for the university.
The Role of the University
The university is a place where knowledge of the world and society are deepened and where many people learn to think rigorously and critically about the world at large…and to act on that. What goes on in the "world of ideas" and in the university has immense influence on discourse and debate in society and the university is one of the few institutions where the scientific search for the truth, free inquiry and critical thinking have any kind of initiative.
At the same time, universities in the United States have a long history of contributing to immoral imperialist endeavors through links to industry and government. In 2003 over 73% of university research was funded by either the government or industry (68% from the government and 5.4% from industry). Harvard University developed napalm (a chemical weapon, used in massive quantities during the Vietnam War, which burns human flesh) for the Department of Defense and Dow Chemical. Various psychological torture techniques, now being used in Iraq and Guantanamo, were developed by research in psychology departments under contract either indirectly or directly with the CIA. And the University of California itself runs the laboratories that are responsible for developing the nuclear weapons that the U.S. government uses to threaten the world. Over the years these imperialistic projects have led to a great deal of righteous resistance by students and faculty.
The relationship between corporations and universities has increased greatly in recent years. Government funding of public universities, like the University of California, especially for non-military-related research, has been slashed while corporate-funded research has risen 350% since the early 1970s (according to former Harvard President Derrick Bok in his book Universities in the Marketplace).
The BP-Berkeley deal marks a leap in this whole process because of its size and scale. This one deal doubles the size of Berkeley’s corporate-sponsored research. Under the agreement, a new large building to house the institute would be built on campus and paid for by the state of California. The university would hire seven new faculty to work on the project. In addition, BP would bring up to 50 of its own scientists to the university who would teach classes, attend seminars, and work with graduate students, giving BP a lot of direct control over research.
At Berkeley (as well as many other colleges and universities) many professors came out of the 1960s, or have been influenced by the rebellion and questioning of that time. They see the deal with BP as part of a bad transformation of the university.
Professors and the Academic Senate are supposed to have significant input into the running of the university. However, during the university's negotiations with BP there was no discussion with the faculty as a whole, no meeting with the Academic Senate, and no public forum. Instead, any voices that were potentially hostile to the deal were shut out of the discussion.
This is happening at a time when powerful reactionary forces have mounted a direct attack on critical thinking in the university, with very highly connected people like David Horowitz and others attempting to silence radical and progressive professors – under the guise of “academic freedom.” (See "WARNING: The Nazification of the American University" in Revolution #81 and the talk by Bob Avakian, “'Balance' Is the Wrong Criterion—And a Cover for a Witch-hunt—What We Need Is the Search for the Truth: Education, Real Academic Freedom, Critical Thinking and Dissent," available at bobavakian.net and revcom.us/avakian).
What is driving both the BP-Berkeley deal and the attacks on critical thinking and dissent is that leading sections of the ruling class believe that the overall the role of the university has become too out of line with the economic and political needs of U.S. imperialism.
Solving Global Warming?
The university administration and BP say this arrangement will contribute to the problem of global warming. BP CEO/Chairman Robert A. Malone proclaimed that his company was “joining some of the world’s best science and engineering talent to meet the demand for low carbon energy.”
However, what the deal really means is that corporate priorities of BP will come to dominate the research agenda of UC Berkeley. Any discoveries that come out of the agreement will be twisted to serve, first and foremost, profit, not the needs of the people. (See accompanying article, “Capitalism and the Consequences of Biofuels.”)
Associate Professor Ignacio Chapela, of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy Management (ESPM), said, “Can anyone believe that after signing the contract we would be working on alternatives that do not involve patents, immoral profit margins, economies of scale and command-and-control governance?”
Speaking at the meeting of the Academic Senate, ESPM Professor Miguel Altieri said, “The field that I study, alternative agriculture, is going to die on this campus. When I retire no more research is going to be done in the field that I represent which is actually an alternative to climate change and industrial agriculture.”
Turning reality upside down (and echoing the reactionary arguments of people like David Horowitz), Chancellor Birgeneau argues that people resisting the BP agreement and opposing the corporatization of the university are against academic freedom. He told the Academic Senate: "The idea that any person in our university would try to inhibit, prevent them, from doing their research because they don't like the source of their funding—I consider that to be abhorrent and to violate the basic principles of academic freedom."
For Birgeneau, academic freedom is the freedom for professors, and the university as a whole, to become appendages to corporate capital and to conduct research that serves its interests. And the question needs to be asked whether the agreement with BP will foster or crush dissent and critical thinking on campus and further or hinder the search for the truth.
For example, there is a long history of attempts by corporations and the government, which fund research in universities, to censor or suppress research that goes against their interests. As documented by “Defend Science,” a statement signed by thousands of scientists, “Scientists whose findings conflict with corporate interests or policies of the Bush Administration face threats of retaliation or denial of funding. There have been 'gag orders' forbidding government scientists from talking publicly about important scientific questions and, at times, even mentioning terms like 'global warming.' In studies by government scientists on global warming and its potentially devastating consequences for the planet and humanity, titles of reports have been changed and whole sections deleted by high political officials. There are repeated efforts by government officials to over-rule scientists on such things as which plant and animal species to include on the 'Endangered Species' list, which natural habitats are in critical need of preservation, how to set air and water quality standards, and so on.” (see defendscience.org)
What about the right of students to learn free of corporate influence? “I didn’t come to this university to be lectured on climate change by British Petroleum,” a graduate student and anti-BP activist said.
Other Aspects of the Deal
One aspect of the agreement that is hidden is the extent to which research at EBI will involve genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Professor Chapela said, "What would certainly come out of the BP-Berkeley facilities would be a large number of genetically altered, reproducing, living organisms to be released in the public environment.”
GMO refers to plants or other organisms whose genetic material has been modified by splicing in genetic material from another organism in order to produce a plant or animal with supposedly better qualities (such as more pest-resistant or containing better nutrition). Many scientists are critical of the way that GMO crops are being introduced into the ecosystem because no one really knows what kind of harmful effects the modified plants might have. For example, tests in the U.S. showed that 44% of caterpillars of the monarch butterfly died when fed large amounts of pollen from genetically modified (GM) corn. Also, GM crops can spread outside the area where they are supposed to be used, contaminating other crops. And GM crops can ruin peasant farmers in the third world, because they are forced to pay companies like Monsanto for the right to use the GMO seeds.
Professor Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez of the group Food First write: “One of the more surreptitious industrial motives of the biofuels agenda—and the reason Monsanto and company are key players—is the opportunity to irreversibly convert agriculture to genetically engineered crops (GMOs). Presently, 52 percent of corn, 89 percent of soy, and 50 percent of canola in the United States is GMO. The expansion of biofuels with ‘designer corn’ genetically tailored for special ethanol processing plants will remove all practical barriers to the permanent contamination of all non-GMO crops.”
And what about the UC administration's claim that BP is a socially conscious company that will contribute to solving the problem of global warming? In 2000, BP launched a $200 million public relations campaign with the slogan, “Beyond Petroleum.” But in reality BP is one of the world's largest oil companies. BP earned over $260 billion in revenues and $22 billion in profit in 2005, but it only invests $0.8 billion in their heavily advertised "alternative energy" project.
And politically, BP has a very ugly history. It helped in the overthrow of the Iranian government in the 1950s after that government attempted to nationalize Iranian oil. It supported the apartheid regime in South Africa—during the apartheid years. In violation of an international oil embargo against South Africa, BP sold fuel to the South African military, operated the largest refinery in the country, and violated the UN embargo against colonial Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe).
In Colombia, where BP has extensive investments, the Colombian president's human rights adviser, Attorney-General and Ombudsman said that "BP passed photographs and videos of local protesters to the army, which human rights groups say led to killings, disappearances, torture and beatings." A general hired by BP to provide security was linked by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights to a paramilitary group responsible for 149 murders between 1987 and 1990.
In addition, two of the 24 labs planned for EBI at UC Berkeley will have nothing to do with biofuels but will be investigating how to “enhance the recovery of petroleum from underground reserves” and “the use of microbes to process coal into fuel.” Both of these projects will lead to increased use of fossil fuels and increased global warming.
A fact sheet for the group Stop BP! says, “Corporations fund research to produce goods to sell for profit. Their close involvement in research can seriously undermine scientific inquiry for the public good. When this focus on profit grows in universities, it results in research that serves corporate interest over all else. Input from other researchers on this very campus about consequences of these products is ignored in the rush to make money. Profit should never be more important than dialogue and free exchange of ideas at UC Berkeley.”
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.