The autonomy of the public university system may be under fire with the deal between UC Berkeley and British Petroleum.
Just last month UC Berkeley, in partnership with Lawrence Berkeley Labs and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, received half a billion dollars to research bio-fuels.
And while City on a Hill Press supports research of alternative energy in general, we recognize a dire conflict of interest when the corporate sponsorship of research undermines academic debate and glosses over the shortcomings of the proposed fuel programs.
It is obvious that we need to produce alternative energy sources if we want to satiate our hunger for growth and progress. However, these bio-fuels—particularly ethanol from corn and bio-diesel from soy beans—have considerable adverse effects and are not as environmentally friendly as they seem. Bio-fuel production consumes significant amounts of fossil fuels as well as land and water use, according to UC Berkeley professor Miguel A. Altieri. It is not a solution to our energy needs.
But research at UC Berkeley will not focus on alternative energy as a broad solution, but a specific profitable aspect that will only create more environmental and political problems.
The implications of the university’s endorsement creates a worrisome view of a truly corporate venture. For what will ultimately be a small research cost, British Petroleum will get research that was in effect subsidized by California’s taxpayers, as the university’s skilled faculty and up-to-date facilities make this research possible. And the direct adverse effects on students is the risk that faculty will buy out of their coursework to pursue this lucrative research, hiring inexperienced faculty to under-teach students.
This is already happening in universities across the country.
The precedent this deal sets pushes the public university further into the pocket of corporations. And as state funding for education declines, public universities have been searching for a bail out. This money has increasingly come from grants. While grants do not inherently lend themselves to misuse—especially government grants that strive for specific social goods—they are not a permanent solution. And corporate grants are especially worrisome because they are driven by profit and not by a desire to serve the community. When private interests dictate the scientific method, we all pay the price.
The Regents business orientation of our education system only pushes this dilemma further. When an unelected board comprised of business leaders runs a university, it prioritizes profit over learning. And programs that don’t have an obvious benefit to corporate America risk erosion.
Furthermore, the autonomy of research is put at risk. If the entire school benefits from the indirect costs—which is the money that grant repays the university for lab space—there is great risk that voices of dissent will be silenced. While this is strictly against university policy, it is viable that internal politics will mount pressure against anti-ethanol research. At UC Berkeley, why would professors speak out against ethanol and bio-diesel if their program funding depends on that research?
Overall British Petroleum is getting a bargain, world-class research without investing in staff or facilities, a victory of business-oriented information over knowledge and a gag in the mouth of opposition.
We cannot allow private investment of this stature into our universities without serious contemplation of the inherent risks as well as continuous open review of the research to ensure that it meets the standards of the university. It is imperative that we remain highly cautious of the research done within the university and that the campus community keeps itself well informed about the money behind research. We have too much to risk, and sadly it is already being put on the line.