Friday, March 09, 2007

Controversy over BP deal at Berkeley

Apparently, there is a building controversy within Berkeley over the recently announced $500 million dollar deal with BP on a biofuel program. A series of articles (e.g., here) in the SF Chronicle have been reporting on the deal and the more recent ones are starting to document some potential issues with the deal. Also see the Berkeley Daily Planet commentary.

From the Chron:

UC Berkeley's $500 million energy research deal with oil giant BP took a pounding at a faculty forum Thursday, with a host of speakers critical of the unprecedented partnership -- some bitingly so.

I am quite interested in this because although I think it is great that Berkeley/LBL are going to now be moving big time into biofuels research, I have heard and read a variety of things regarding this deal that make one want to look at it more carefully. Some of the grumblings may be related to the standard anti-GMO opinions pervasive in Berkeley, but some of them may be more significant. For example when I gave a talk at Berkeley a few weeks ago, I asked as many people as I could why Berkeley picked U. Illinois to be their agricultural partner on the project and not Davis. And the answer was basically always the same - supposedly people at Berkeley were told by BP that Davis could not be involved because Davis had recently singed a collaborative agreement with Chevron over biofuels research.

Now folks at Berkeley are welcome to choose whomever they want to be involved in the project. But if they were told by BP that Davis could not be involved, that suggests academic freedom was tossed out the window. This thing is - I have been having a hard time getting any straight answers from people involved in the LBL/Berkeley side of things. So I had forgotten about the whole thing when someone sent me a link to the Chron story. What really caught my attention is the quote from Paul Rabinow in the article:

Anthropology Professor Paul Rabinow cited the 1998-2003 research deal between Swiss biotech firm Novartis and Cal's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. That deal, which provided for $5 million a year from 1998 to 2003, was intended to develop genetically engineered foods. It sparked campus protests and was criticized at the time by faculty members who felt it was implemented without collegial debate.

"The way the university handled it was completely, recklessly stupid," Rabinow said.

The same mistakes are being repeated with the BP deal, he said.

"It should have been transparent, there should have been consultation," he said. "This is silly. You should have given us more time to debate this."

I met Paul at a workshop at Berkeley on the field of Synthetic Biology and he struck me as one of the most sensible people in the crowd even though he was not directly involved in Synthetic Biology research. He gave a talk at the meeting that was really spectacular (I think you see the talk here). Since newspaper articles do not always get the whole story correct, I am not certain how accurately they represent Paul's real concerns regarding the BP deal.
But from the article it sounds like the Berkeley and LBL administration may not have consulted the faculty broadly on the nature of the deal. That would be a bad thing since such secrecy is, as Rabinow implied, not the right way to get community support. In addition, it sounds like some of the people involved in the project have let the large amount of money go to their heads (one faculty member was reported to have said that Berkeley "researchers can't afford to fail on a project of such magnitude" as though it was the amount of money that determined whether one should do a good job on something, which is silly).

So I guess the question that is unresolved is - did
Berkeley and LBL compromise their principles for a pot of gold? I do not know but I hope they get moving in front of this really rally fast and (1) make sure the deal is on the up and up and (2) become more open about the whole thing. This is particularly important because I think LBL and Berkeley could become world leaders in biofuels research. But they could also cause biofuels research to end up being treated like all genetic engineering work if they are not careful. And that would be a bad thing since if done right, biofuels have enormous potential. Here's hoping Berkeley/LBL/BP change tactics, and get rid of the whole secrecy thing and move every detail of the project into the open.

A webcast of the meeting is here.


  1. I haven't met Paul, but I've read his book "Making PCR" about the whole Mullis/Cetus saga. It's interesting that Rabinow is an cultural anthropologist -- he studies scientists the same way other cultural anthropologists study primitive tribes in the Amazon.

  2. Not that different in most cases no?

    And when are you going to start your own blog? You know more about most of these topics that anyone I know ... although I am happy to have you keep adding to my blog here

  3. Well, with the possible exception of the Yanomami, the scientific community is probably fiercer, but point taken.

    In terms of a blog -- okay, okay -- take a look at

  4. Already beat you to that to -- found your blog before you had even osted there ... look over on my list of links. God to have you out there

  5. Interesting issue. I just found out about the Chevron conflict from someone here at Davis last week. I'm working on setting up an interview with Steve Long who I met a couple weeks ago in Illinois - who's doing the work on Miscanthus with the BP deal.

    I didn't realize that this issue would ignite such a fiery debate. And it's brought out some of the usual suspects, e.g. Chapela.

    I thought the argument at the bottom of the SF Chron article rather interesting:
    "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."

  6. The whole thing seems pretty interesting from a distance. When I first heard that Berkeley/LBL got the grant I was really really thrilled (and still am in many ways). After all, this is a lot of money and I think LBL with Steve Chu in charge can use the money more wisely that just about anyone I have ever met.

    But if they do not handle the controversy well, I worry about the whole future of biofuels research. For example, the anti-GMO stuff just seems so ridiculous much of the time but a lot of it was due to mishandling of the field by the early Pioneers (sorry for the company play on words). Hopefully biofuels will not suffer the same fate.

  7. For those interested you can get more detail on the proposal at

  8. Hello all. The biofuel issue should not be separated from all lifestyle issues. Why do we need more road fuels in the first place? Why do we consume as we do? Why do we think everything is limitless/unbounded on our planet? Why are we losing our innate abilities to connect many different things to eachother? Why must we replace one bad thing with another, rather than change at the root of the problem?

    Although we have these illusions that we can grow all the fuel we require as a nation on our nation's land (this is thermodynamically provable), the real developments have always been taking place in the tropics. Brazil and Indonesia are being destroyed in real-time. This is not an illusion. What happens when you take the most nutrient rich and biodiverse regions of the planet and make them into giant monocultures? Will not our climate change, will not soil degrade, will not water become a scarcity, will we not then have to import all the elements that were once there naturally? Prof. Eisen you are a biologist. You know that all things are connected in natural systems. Taking huge swaths of wild land and turning them into monocultures poses massive problems. These issues are not being debated. This is my problem with the UC-BP deal. Along with the complete lack of transparency and huge barriers to innovative research being set up by such corporate-academic partnerships.

    Please read my article when you get a chance:

    Also, several UCB student groups along with professors and local non-profits are launching a forum series to debate this. I would like you to consider speaking your views on the matters Prof. Eisen. This is incredibly important for us as a culture and our world. We need to share information and debate publicly and educate and be educated. I will send you a more formal request and information when I myself have more information.

    Thanks so much,
    Lucas Patzek

  9. I share many of your sentiments Lucas. I am torn over the development of biofuels. On the one hand, I think biofuels are going to happen whether I want them to or not. A farmer can simply get more money right now for converting some of their land into fuel production than for most food production. Therefore there is certainly value in making biofuels done in a more productive and less environmentally damaging manner.

    On the other hand, I think there is enormous potential for economic and environmental problems to come from biofuels. On the environmental front, monoculture and deforestation are but two possible problems. On the economic, the big one right now is raising cost of food due to competition for land. I think that some of the Berkeley-BP people appreciate this but many do not. And unfortunately, many seem to not care at all.

    The question one needs to ask rergarding this is - is the Berkeley BP deal set up to do things to make biofuels better or worse than they would end up otherwise? If the BP Berkeley program goes forward, as it seems like it will, there are some things to watch and others to not be as focused on. I for one hope Chu plays a really big role in it. I have heard Chu talk and think he is great in every way ... and I do generally trust him implicitly that he will try to do the right thing for the world. Many others in the project I am less confident in (I will not name names here). Thus I think it should be as open as possible and watched carefully by the community.


Most recent post

Notes on My Meningioma and Gamma Knife Treatment

So - on 9/27 I had Gamma Knife treatment at UC Davis for a posterior fossa meningioma that was first found by MRI about 6 years ago.  I am g...