UC and the perils of partnerships

Sunday, April 1, 2007

"REINVENTING the research university," was how UC President Robert Dynes described it. "Our generation's moon shot," declared UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau.

Those were just some of the superlatives that swirled in the air during the celebratory press conference on Feb. 1 announcing plans for an Energy Biosciences Institute -- with the help of a $500 million, 10-year grant from British Petroleum.

Its lofty purpose matched the rhetoric: Doing research on biofuels that could help save the planet from the catastrophic impact of global warming. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up to pledge $40 million in state funds for the Berkeley hills facility that will house the institute.

Since those euphoric days, the proposed arrangement has run into some critical questioning -- questions that deserve a full hearing, and considered answers, before the university proceeds. It is in the university's best interest to do so.

As Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary, who is now a public-policy professor at Berkeley, bluntly framed the debate at a town-hall meeting last month: The deal could be "a huge feather in Berkeley's cap" -- or it could end up as "a huge noose around its neck."

Now, instead of emphasizing the size of the grant, university officials are minimizing it. They point out that the BP grant will be less than 3 percent of the outside research funds that flow to the campus each year. (Only a quarter of the BP money will go directly to UC Berkeley. The rest will be shared by partner institutions, such as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and BP itself.)

In a telephone interview last week, Chancellor Birgenau also downplayed the pioneering aspect of the proposed partnership. No reinvention of the university, he says, will be necessary. Rather, he said, the BP deal will be made to "fit within existing frameworks."

"Partnerships" between the university and industry are commonplace, both at Berkeley and elsewhere, he pointed out. "This is following a pretty long tradition," he said.

He cited the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., where employees of IBM, Mobil, Exxon and numerous other corporations routinely work alongside laboratory scientists. At UC Irvine, Hitachi established a biotechnology laboratory in 1990 with a $16.5 million grant. Closer to home, Intel employees work with Berkeley researchers at a "lablet" in downtown Berkeley.

None of these arrangements, however, comes close to the size and complexity of the potential BP-UC deal, which is thought to be the largest private industry-academic partnership ever proposed.

One of the most troubling aspects of the collaboration is that the proposed institute will, in effect, be divided in two: an "open" part, in which Berkeley scientists will do their own research, and another "proprietary" part, which will be closed to the university and staffed with up to 50 BP employees.

The campus would have no control or oversight over what research would be conducted there. BP researchers would have no obligation to publish their findings. Students will not be involved in the research.

On the face of it, this arrangement conflicts not only with the "open" nature of a university, especially a public one, but also with Berkeley's prohibition against classified research on campus.

University officials explained that the reason for the prohibition is to allow for an exchange of information and views among faculty and students. (If research were classified, for example, students would be unable to work on a faculty member's research.) Birgenau said any research conducted by Berkeley faculty at the biofuels institute would be completely open and transparent. Only the BP component would be closed.

These are complexities that touch on the essence of a university culture that, at its best, must be fully transparent. Other worrisome issues include whether the BP money will skew research on global warming in the direction of one "solution" -- one which petrochemical companies such as BP would profit from in the long run -- at the expense of less marketable, alternative-energy sources.

The campus must resist the temptation to rush into an arrangement of this magnitude without fully exploring its many ramifications. How it resolves them will shape the increasingly intermeshed worlds of private industry and academia -- in California and beyond.