A public forum at the University of California at Berkeley last week explored how the new Energy Biosciences Institute may impact life on campus and earth. Besides Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, public policy professor Robert Reich and those leading research in biofuels and biodiversity had the floor.
Just a few weeks back, SustainLane Government ranked Berkeley as one of the top five US cleantech incubation clusters because of the biosciences center announcement Feb. 1. Unless the center's agreement is not signed, we would continue to rank it so. Thursday's forum was meant to suss out the unpublicized details of BP's $500 million grant to the biofuels research center, which will be managed by the federal Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories.
At stake are three sometimes competing interests:
1. Addressing global climate change, which Chancellor Birgeneau characterized as the most urgent need facing humanity today;
2. The ability of the university to remain reasonably independent of multi-national corporate control, and;
3. Maintaining planetary plant biodiversity and integrity in the face of genetic engineering--gentically modified organisms (GMO) are a supporting strategy of the biosciences center.
Chemical engineering professor Jay Keasling spoke to how the center's research will for the first time be "evaluating markets and (business) risks directly as a parallel part of the research pipeline." Keasling also spoke about how the center will be "educating people in government about the possibilities of biofuels."
Beth Burnside, vice chancellor for research for Berkeley, said that 70 percent of the biosciences center's work follows the standard industry sponsorship guidelines for the University. As for the proprietary 30 percent: "We won't have any control of that," Burnside said. She said that outside funding for Berkeley will increase from 3.5 percent to 5 percent as part of BP's largesse. The national university average for such funding is 7 percent, she said.
Evironmental sciences professor Ignacio Chapela said the center's funding and GMO research will compromise the university's integrity as well as the earth's biodiversity. "(Genetically modified) biofuels show tragic aspects of insatiable consumption. It's a solution for a crazed consumer binge."
Former US Labor Secreatry Robert Reich was compelling laying out for analysis some risks of major corporate sponsorship of a public university. "The gravitational pull (of BP, the center's funder) may be apparent even though invisible, like a black hole in space." He concluded: "The Energy Biosciences Institute's safeguards will determine if this is a feather in Berkeley's cap or a huge noose around it's neck."
There is no easy answer for how UC Berkeley should proceed, besides that it must use transparency, caution and dilgent financial, ethical and proceedural analyses, in addition to continuing its well-established scientific and economic research. What is clear is that the challenge to confront global climate change will produce not only unprecedented new industries and economic development opportunities; it will also produce unintended consequences that will require many more discussions--public and private--similar to Berkeley's.